Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-One

The Human Experience

Bala ran around the outdoor Waukee middle-school track with his skinny arms bent at the elbows, moving like the pistons of an Oldearth engine. His breath floated into the frozen air and wafted away.

Clare leaned against the woven metal fence while the sky darkened. An ache built behind her eyes. Hugging her winter coat around her slender waist did little to diminish the cold that seeped into her shaking bones. She was frozen to the core, and no coat in the world could warm her.

Bala turned aside at the entrance and swung his pounding footsteps in her direction. Panting, he heaved up next to her and bent over in an attempt to regain his exhausted breath. “What’cha doing here? I thought we’d meet at the Nook for something sweet and hot.”

Clare forced a grin. “Always thinking about food, aren’t you?”

Bala puffed smokestacks in her direction and wobbled a skinny arm. “If you were born with this metabolism, you’d be obsessed with keeping body and soul together too, you know.”

Clare threw an arm around his heaving shoulder, not so much to give him strength as to steal a bit of the steam pouring off his body. “Come on, oh-buddy-of-mine. We’ve got work to do. I stashed my larder with enough goodies to last you through another ice age.”

Bala loped along at her side, wiping a wisp of curly hair out of his eyes. “Oh great. Another ice age. You have a dark mind, lady.”

Clare shoved her frozen hands into huge, fluffy pockets, and they strode along the snowy sidewalk in silence. After a bit, she frowned and looked askance at Bala. “What’re you doing out here at the track, anyway?”

Bala shrugged one lopsided shoulder. “Working off a little steam.”

“Ha, ha!” Clare pummeled his left side down another notch. “So, tell me. How are we going to get Derik out of Governor Right’s prison and Justine out of Taug’s morgue?”

Bala glanced up at the first star twinkling in the sky and pointed. “Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish, I wish tonight.”

Clare stopped and joined in. “What’d you wish for?”

Bala hurried down the lonely sidewalk. “Can’t tell. It’d break the… whatchamacallit.”

Eyebrows rising, Clare laughed and bellowed frozen air in front of her face. “You’re superstitious?”

“Not at all. I just don’t want to lose my wish.”

“Seriously?”

Bala sighed and stopped. He tipped his head back and stared wide-eyed into the blue and lavender sky. “I believe in more than the eye can see.”

With easy dismissal, Clare waved him on. “So does everyone, I imagine. After all, we can’t see everything. There’s a lot we haven’t explored and don’t know.”

Bala shook his head. “Naw. That’s not what I mean.” He hurried across a silent street and looked over his shoulder. “I hope you left a light on. My shins are still healing.”

Twinkling windows illuminated the rural neighborhood. Clare huffed forward. “It’s automated, idiot. Like your house should be. First wrong tip-toe around my place and lights and alarms go off.”

Bala wrapped his quickly chilling arms around his lanky body and jogged ahead. “I got kids. Tip-toes are a security nightmare.”

~~~

Once ensconced in Clare’s largest and comfiest chair with a cup of hot cocoa in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other, Bala leaned back and grinned. “You do love me.”

Clare sat cross-legged on the couch with a mug of steaming tea. “What are we going to do? I’ve been formally ordered to stay out of all political messes and concentrate on cases with legitimate humans.”

“The boss knows about Derik?”

“Someone whispered enough in his ear to scare him witless. He told me to drop Derik’s case and forget I ever heard of Mrs. Hoggsworth.”

Bala whistled under his breath. “But we’ll need Justine’s help to free Derik, and she’s a legitimate human, sort of. And after all, an unfriendly alien is holding her by force.”

Clare shook her head. “I doubt she could be held by force… unless she thought she’d save Derik by offering herself up.”

A swarm of kittens clawed their way up the side of Bala’s chair. One nosed the plate of cookies near Bala’s hand.

Bala sipped his cocoa. “Governor Right can’t afford to leave evidence around that might bite her in the back someday.” He chomped a huge bite out of his cookie.

Clare wrapped her fingers around her mug and stared at the rising steam. “And Taug’s probably in hot water with the Crestar leadership. They hate looking like the bad guys. The veneer is everything to them.”

“I disagree. Science is their god. They’d sell their offspring for a crack at new technology. But given the Inter-Alien Alliance agreement, they’re caught between science and diplomacy. The question is: how do we convince Taug that he can have both?”

“We want to do that?”

“Sure, on condition he gives Justine her liberty.”

Clare’s eyebrows scrunched in indignation. “Taug is a lying, murderous cheat who’ll use anyone and everyone to further his own ends. And you want to offer him a way out?”

Bala leaned back and took another glorious sip of cocoa. “I said offer. I didn’t say deliver.”

~~~

All the snow had melted into rivulets of a late winter thaw. The sun shone mildly warmer, though it made no promises. The trees seemed to think that they had outlasted the worst of the season, and their branches thickened, the tips showing the tiniest swellings, hinting at future hopes.

Pedestrians plodded through the melting icy muck while those on autoskimmers raced above the mess, undaunted by nature’s challenges. Bala marched across the street and held the door of the nondescript office building open for Clare, who glanced around nervously.

When they reached the desired floor, Bala stood back and let Clare take the lead, though he covered her with his well-aimed Dustbuster. They entered Taug’s laboratory. Finding it empty, they both sighed.

Clare appeared to be dancing backward as she turned about the immaculate, white-walled room. Bala edged nearer the furthest glass wall, his gaze sweeping right and left in wide arcs. Finally, Clare unclenched her fingers around her own Dustbuster and let out a long breath. “I guess he isn’t here.” She shook her head. “Though from everything I gather, he isn’t anywhere else. I wonder—”

A sudden splash and a quick flash of tentacles swirling through the water forced a squeak from Bala. Clare clamped her hand over his, stopping him from blasting the wall to oblivion and drowning them in Crestonian fluids in the process.

Taug’s eyes peered at them through the murky green swirl.

Clare frowned at his sudden smile. It almost looked like he was glad to see them. He couldn’t be…could he?

Taug flashed out of sight.

Bala and Clare waited, their Dustbusters ready.

In a surprisingly short time, Taug’s bio-suit encased body waddled around the curved wall and into the central laboratory.

Bala was busy inspecting every container and had just lifted the lid on the dissecting tube. He paled and clutched his stomach. Wagging a shaky finger, Bala croaked. “What the—Who the heck do you have in there?”

Taug grinned mischievously. “No one you know.”

Bala raked his throat clear. “How do I know?”

“Hello.”

The familiar voice made Bala swing around.

Clare gasped.

Justine stepped forward, wringing her wet hair in a long towel. “I would’ve killed him if it was human—or any sentient being—for that matter.” She tossed a sinister smile at Taug.

Taug reflected the sentiment and opened his tentacles as if to embrace his long-lost family. “Come, let’s make the most of this opportunity. It’s not often that we gather without the express intention of killing one another.” He gestured to an alcove off to the side populated with padded chairs, a sofa, and a couple of ornate tables.

Bala’s eyebrows rose. “I had no idea that Crestas had a taste for comfortable furnishings.”

Taug lumbered ahead and plopped down with a sigh on a cushy sofa. “After living in water, you don’t think we’d prefer your hard, unrelenting wood and steel? No, there is much you do not understand about us. We are not as barbaric as you think. Your prejudice blinds you to our better qualities.”

Clare huffed. “Honestly, it’s your war crimes that blind me. But let’s not get off-topic.” She folded her arms across her chest.

Bala leaned against one of the empty chairs, his eyes roving over to Justine, who seated herself across from Taug as if they were having an intimate moment together. Bala shook his head. “Okay, Justine, what’s going on? You’ve become best buddies with your lover’s would-be killer?”

Justine combed out strands of her wet hair with her long, slender fingers. “You do rush to rash judgments, don’t you?”

Clare opened her hands beseechingly. “We came to rescue you!”

Justine flicked her hair over her shoulder and glanced at Taug before turning her full gaze on Clare. “Silly of you. I hardly need to be rescued. Thanks, anyway.” Justine rose, towered over Clare a moment, then moved past her and strolled around the small space. “Remember in my apartment, when you apologized for being a judgmental idiot?”

Clare stiffened, only her eyes glowering.

“And you simpered all over my cat?”

As she flushed, Clare lowered her gaze.

Justine stopped in front of Clare and held up her hand to forestall any possible interruption. “I knew then that I had misjudged you.” Justine stepped into Clare’s personal space. “I couldn’t embrace my human DNA, but I couldn’t ignore it either.” She tapped Clare’s shoulder. “When you humbled yourself before me, you brought me the first real joy I’ve ever felt.”

Clare turned away. “Happy to be of service.” Her irony bounced off Justine like water off Taug’s glass wall.

Justine’s eyed followed Clare’s pacing form. “It’s all about choice, you see. My creator never gave me an option. I was caught between worlds. No human could really love an android, and technology has no heart to offer.”

Bala slapped the back of the chair, startling Taug. “That’s not true! Derik loves you. He offered his life to save you.”

Justine shook her head. “Merely sentiment. He loves the idea of me.”

Taug’s eyes ping-ponged back and forth between the speakers.

Bala clapped his hands together in impotent fury. “If sacrificing yourself for another isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.”

“Sharing yourself completely. Something I can never truly do.”

Clare lifted her hands in apparent surrender. “I’m lost. How did I help?”

“You humbled yourself. You even hugged my cat!”

Clare glared at Justine. “Okay, fine. Fairtrade. You come over and hug my cat sometimes, and we’ll be even. You’ll be as humble as me.”

Taug grunted at Clare, a tentacle waving in admonishment. “You’re a stupid woman.” He heaved himself to his feet. “Justine is humble enough.” He glanced at Justine. “She was never a child and can never have children. A vital part of the human experience—lost to her.”

Justine smirked. “But not so vital.” She glared at Clare. “I don’t need to be a child, a mother, or even in love to experience humanity. You humbled yourself for a cat.” She turned on her heel. “I was never so glad to be an android in all my life.”

Bala stood back and gripped his Dustbuster as he glared at Justine. “So you’ve sided with Taug—against us?”

Justine laughed as she pounded to the doorway and turned on the threshold. “I’m not against you. Just not one of you. I don’t need you anymore. Taug’s helped me understand that my uniqueness is my greatest asset. He’s sent a message to his superior; I’ll be returning with him.”

Clare’s eyes widened. “To Crestar? You’re crazy. They’ll dissect you!”

Bala waved his Dustbuster at Taug. “Right after they kill him.”

Taug chuckled. “They won’t kill a hero bringing home their salvation.”

“Emotion without reason lets people walk all over you; reason without emotion is a mask for cruelty.” ~Nalini Singh

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eleven

Disaster Original

The snow-covered houses along the dark, quiet street appeared to slumber like their inhabitants, resting up for the next day’s adventures. Sleeping birds rested their tiny heads under spread wings to keep out the winter chill. Even the trees stood like silent, still guards, perhaps meditating on their long years of service while their sap slowed in a well-earned hibernation.

Kendra jerked up like a marionette immersed in blackness. Her heart thudded against her chest. She cocked her head and listened. One of the boys was snoring. Other than that, she couldn’t hear anything unusual. She blinked in puzzlement, then sighed and leaned back against large, welcoming pillows.

A chair scraped across the floor.

Kendra sat up again and kicked Bala’s foot under the covers. “Wake up!”

Bala stirred, licked his lips, and moaned.

Kendra offered a full arm wallop on his blanketed body before she slid out from under her warm covers. She reached for the lamp. Click. Click. Click-click-click. Damn!

The faint hissing of a breather helm slithered through the house.

“Bala, if you want to live through the night, I suggest you get up. Now!” Kendra pounded Bala on the chest.

Bala leapt out of bed in one fluid motion and promptly fell to the floor with his foot tangled in the sheets. “Oweee, oooh, ahhh.” He regained his balance and fluttered to his dresser where he pulled forth a dented, second-hand Dustbuster and a flashlight. As he aimed both the gun and the light at the door, it flew open.

Two enormous Uanyi entered the bedroom. Shocked hesitation cost all. In a flash, one intruder lunged forward, knocking Bala’s weapon to the side and crushing him in a decidedly unfriendly hug, while the other Uanyi thrust Kendra into a corner.

Enraged, Bala fought back, kicking and punching, in a vain attempt to reach Kendra.

Changing tactics, the Uanyi flung Bala like a toy onto the bed, where he slapped, punched, and shook the man until Bala’s teeth-rattled, and he finally stopped struggling.

Kendra screamed. The children wailed from different rooms in the house.

At the sound of heavy, clomping steps, the two Uanyi jumped away from Bala’s groaning form and stood at attention.

An enormous Ingot strode into the darkened room. “Enough. Next time, maybe. Just finish the job.”

The two Uanyi then proceeded to do a fair imitation of trolls having temper tantrums, breaking everything in the room, including the windows and walls. The Ingot merely folded his bulky arms and watched, his eyes gleaming.

Kendra struggled to the door, begging to be allowed to go to her kids, but the Ingot sent her sprawling back to the corner with a swift kick. The other intruders grunted in exertion as they continued their thorough devastation.

Unseen intruders smashed their way through the other rooms, forcing panicked groans from Bala; “Oh, God, oh God,” his whole body curled up in pain.

After an eternity, the intruders couldn’t find anything else to break. The Ingot raised his arm and waved carelessly. “Done. Let’s go.” He led the others out of the bedroom and headed toward the front door, which hung by one twisted hinge. Clomping noisily down the steps, they mounted waiting scooters.

The houses, birds, and trees frightened into eerie silence acted as if they had heard nothing.

Bala slowly uncurled and slid to the floor, weak with shock-shivering pain.

Kendra scrambled from the room and was met by an onslaught of sobbing children. She knelt and hugged them, crying, calling them each by name. “Rachel, sweetie, you hurt?” Kendra took a screaming baby out of the girl’s arms. “Barni? David?” She rubbed the little boys’ tear-stained faces. “How about you, Seth?” Seth clutched a whimpering three-year-old and mutely shook his dark, curly head.

Her eyes widened in fresh terror. “Veronica?”

Bala thrashed his way into the hallway and limped to the last bedroom, calling, “Veronica!”

Streaky tears streamed down Kendra’s face as she and the children slowly hauled themselves en mass towards the last bedroom. “Oh, God, no…please, not one of my babies….”

Bala sat huddled on the floor with a small child cradled in his lap, his arms encircling her hunched form. She buried her face in his chest, as he lay collapsed against the cracked wall. “She was in the closet, hiding under luggage. She’s… okay.”

Kendra fell to her knees, all the children crumpling with her. “Lord, save me now, save me.”

Swallowing against the pain, Bala rocked his shivering child. “He—just—did.”

With a trembling finger, her face contorting in agony, Kendra wiped tears from her baby’s face. “Not from this hate.”

~~~

At the first light of dawn, Clare dashed across the muddy, scarred lawn, jumped the porch steps two at a time, and banged ferociously on the front door. She hopped from foot to foot as she waited, peering through a cracked window into the living room. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Please—” Shuffled footsteps pinned her to the floor. She braced herself, ready to rush in.

The broken door complained feebly and was shoved aside.

Bala stood there, his black and blue face testifying to his current state of health. One eye had swollen shut. He gripped the doorframe for support.

Clare jumped forward and squeezed him in a hug. “Oh, God! Bala, it’s worse than—”

Kendra’s groan called from a back room. “No visitors, please. The place is a mess.”

Bala managed a strangled, “Just Clare, honey. Go back to sleep.” He stepped aside, releasing his neck from her suffocating embrace and gestured toward the living room. He shifted the door back into place, limped to his broken couch, and braced himself. With one hand, he flourished a mocking bow. “New decorating scheme. Disaster original.”

Clare fought back tears. “How can you joke at a time like this?”

“It’s either laugh or cry and my eyes hurt, so I figure—”

Clare paced the room, her hands clenched into fists. “I’ll get her; I promise. I’d like to wring her thick, flabby neck with my own hands!”

Bala slumped onto the broken couch. It tipped at a precarious angle. Ignoring the danger, he rested his head on his hand, leaned back, and raised a swollen eyebrow at Clare. “Who, exactly, are you planning on strangling on my behalf?”

Clare stomped around the room, groaning at smashed family pictures, tendrils of shredded plants, ripped curtains, and all the mind-numbing destruction. “I can think of two.”

Bala rubbed his chin, and it started to bleed. “Aww, darn. I thought I stoppered all the leaks.” He tried to heave himself off the couch but fell back with a pained squeak.

Clare ran to his side. “Stay put. What do you need?”

Bala pointed a nervous finger down the hall. “In the bathroom, the cabinet was left intact. Missed it in the dark, I suppose. Sloppy of them.”

Clare scurried down the hall and bumped into Kendra with a shriek. “Kendra! Oh, Lord!”

Kendra waved Clare down the hall. “Bandages to the right. I’m just going to order something to eat. Can’t fix meals in this—looks like a couple hurricanes came through.”

Clare’s eyes widened in alarm as if Kendra’s sending a message would drain her last vestiges of strength. “No, let me! I’ll call. I’ll take care of everything. Just go sit with Bala. His chin is bleeding.” Proof enough that the universe tottered on the edge of an abyss.

Kendra shrugged one shoulder and nodded her acceptance. “Sure. Fix everything.” She rotated a limp hand in the air. “Play Fairy Godmother—long as you want.” She stumbled down the hall.

Clare dashed into the bathroom. A moment later, she scampered back into the living room, brandishing a bandage. “Here, I’ll just wrap your—” She stared.

Bala lay crumpled into Kendra’s embrace. She rocked him like a baby.

Clare’s eye filled with tears, and her lips quivered.

Kendra stared up through dry, vacant eyes. “Don’t start.” She peered down at Bala’s blood-caked chin. “Let him sleep. He’s been watching over us since this whole—insanity—happened. The Interventionists came, did their thing. Amazing the house is still standing.”

Clare slid to the edge of the couch, bracing one hand on the wall to keep it from falling over. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“Bala didn’t want to wake you in the middle of the night. Told ‘em to wait till morning.”

Clare shook her head. “Idiot. I’m supposed to be called first. I could have helped. Plus, I need fresh evidence. He knows that.”

Kendra shrugged. “He wasn’t thinking too clearly. Having your head bashed in and your family terrorized does funny things to a man.” Kendra smoothed Bala’s disheveled hair. “Look, you said you want to help, well, then go ahead. Order something. We need to eat, no matter how sick we feel. And then you go ahead and get these—” Kendra’s voice dropped to a shaky whimper.

Clare fell to her knees and knelt at Kendra’s side. “Don’t let them get to you—not on the inside. Please. Hang on to the Kendra I know and love, the one who hasn’t a mean bone in her body.”

Kendra stroked her husband’s head. “My kids wouldn’t agree.” Kendra leveled her gaze at Clare’s teary eyes. “But I won’t let this happen again. We’re gonna protect ourselves. No one had the right to terrorize us. God! We’re human beings!”

Clare rose, sniffed back impending tears, and started tapping on her datapad. “As soon as I get some food on your table, I’m going to call everyone I know to see that your family is protected.”

A child called from the back room. “Maaaa-ma!”

Kendra sighed and laid Bala’s limp form gently on the couch. She smoothed his hair away from his eyes as she called back. “Coming, honey.” She straightened and gestured vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. “Sounds good. But please don’t lay anything on the table just yet—it’s scattered all over the floor.” Rubbing the small of her back, Kendra limped out of the room.

Clare faced Bala and knelt by his slumbering side. Her voice lowered to a husky whisper. “We’ll get them, Bala. Promise.”

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Ten

Mixing More Than Metaphors

Justine stood in front of a large female chimpanzee and stared into its black eyes. A wall of windows separated them. Unimpressed, the monkey sat slumped in a corner, occasionally yanking on a chain suspended from a tall branch. A baby chimpanzee scampered about in the background.

Justine’s gaze shifted to the baby. The mother’s eyes shifted in accord. The baby trotted over, lurching between two legs and four. It stopped when it saw Justine and then scurried up its mother’s arm, chattering and clinging to her. The mother glared at Justine.

Justine slowly lifted her hands and placed them, palms up, in full view. She lowered her head, letting her gaze drop to the ground.

The mother twitched and swung her baby high onto her other hip. With one last glare, she tipped her nose into the air and swung up into the nearest tree. The chain jangled as she flew by.

“Interesting creatures, aren’t they?”

Justine swiveled and faced Cerulean, her look of concentration morphing into a twisted grin. “Yes, I feel strangely at home here. In a cage that pretends it isn’t a cage.”

Cerulean offered his arm as he glanced toward the door.

“I’m glad to see you again. I’ve thought of you often.”

As Justine took his arm, her grin faded. “I can’t say the same since I only awoke a few weeks ago. But I’m glad to see you now.”

Cerulean patted her arm as he directed her toward a butterfly garden. “Well, tell me about your awakening. Who rescued you and why?”

Justine strolled to a quiet corner and perched on a bench stationed against a life-like diorama of prehistoric insects. “I can’t betray professional secrets, you understand. Suffice to say, my mind is intact, and I have learned from my previous experiences.”

“So you aren’t planning on repeating—”

“I have no certain plans at the moment.”

“And Derik?”

“Ah, yes, I was wondering when you’d ask.” Justine uncrossed her legs and rubbed her hands together. “It’s a little chilly in here. Do you mind if we walk out into the sun?”

Cerulean’s brows furrowed as his eyes darted around the tropical setting, but he merely offered his hand. They strolled out of the exotic building and into the sunlight that shone on every visible food station and playground. Children swung from ropes and vines in a jungle gym not far from where the monkeys gamboled in their own sport.

Justine stopped and pointed. “They are not so different, human children and monkeys.”

“Except the monkeys are in cages and the humans are free.”

Justine peered at Cerulean. “Depends on how you define the word free.”

“Not being locked in.”

Justine sniffed her approval. “Yes, there is that.” She strolled over to a popcorn stand and ordered a bag. Upon obtaining her prize, she meandered back to Cerulean, nibbling each kernel like a squirrel working on a nut. She passed the bag over.

Cerulean took a handful and chewed meditatively. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Why should I? Can’t a robot have a personal life?”

Cerulean stared into her eyes, his voice softened to just above a whisper. “Justine.”

Refusing his intimate gaze, Justine glanced away and started toward a herd of lumbering elephants set beyond a wide cavern. “I don’t want to remember. I just want to start over.”

Cerulean sighed as he kept pace. “Sounds like a wonderful idea. But to do that, you have to be free. Are you?”

Justine gripped the guardrail before the cavern and leaned over the wide abyss. Black streams of hair curtained her face.

With a gentle touch, Cerulean tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. “Who awoke you?”

“A Cresta named Taug.”

Cerulean’s hand dropped to his side. He shook his head at the elephants. “Damn.”

“He’s not so bad. He told me more than he should’ve. It seems that every biological creature thinks that robots have no moral code.”

“You’re not a robot.”

“I am—to Taug.”

“Not to me. You know that.”

Justine leaned in, her lips only centimeters from Cerulean’s.

“Derik thinks I am real.”

“Derik cares about you.”

“Will that make me real?”

“To him? Or to you?” Cerulean raked shaky fingers through his hair. “Listen, Justine, you have nothing to prove. I care about you, too. You’re a desirable woman who happens to live in a mechanical body. I could kill the mind who decided to put your being into a killing machine, but that wouldn’t help, would it? You have to decide who you are.”

Justine reached over, her fingers searching, and placed her hand in his. Her gaze turned to a group of children tagging behind their mother. “You’ll help me?”

Cerulean wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “If you let me.”

~~~

The orange harvest moon glowed big and round through the lace-curtained windows as Bala slouched in the back booth of the Breakfast Nook, reviewing his datapad. The Breakfast Nook belied its name since it served meals from early morning to late at night and offered everything from human breakfast fare to Uanyi appetizers.

The original human owner planned a country diner serving humans with a hunger for rural Oldearth, but as Newearth’s population changed to reflect more diverse inhabitants—few of whom hungered for anything reminiscent of Oldearth—he soon found himself unable to pay the bills.

Riko sauntered in one morning, saw possibilities, and saved the day—or at least the restaurant. The original human, Mr. Gilbert, long since disabled by old age, still received a healthy percentage of the profits and a certain level of Riko’s unpredictable generosity in free meals whenever he managed to hobble into town. He always nodded approvingly that the lace curtains and Oldearth décor had remained intact even if the menu had drastically changed. Riko always shrugged the old man’s gratitude away. Customers came for the food. It could look like the inside of a Bhuac cave for all he cared. As long as everyone paid in proper Newearth units.

At present, the diner was deserted except for a gangly human teen wiping down the last of the tables. After whistling a free-flowing Bhuac hymn, he slapped the counter with his towel and nodded his approval. He waved a cheerful goodnight to Bala as he passed into the backroom.

Bala grinned and returned a salute.

The door chime tinkled and a poorly attired, slump-shouldered Uanyi shuffled in, his eyes searching the environment.

Bala stood and squared his shoulders.

It was getting late, and Riko had told him he’d wait for his guest to leave before closing up. “But if you could hurry things along—I’ve got my own affairs to tend to, see?”

Bala tried not to cringe at the approaching spectacle. He considered few aliens beautiful and this specimen of Uanyi maleness slouching toward him left him in a cold sweat. Riko was the only Uanyi he’d ever felt comfortable around and even then, he had little desire to get on Riko’s bad side. Bala tried on a smile, stared at the huge, bulbous eyes and the hissing breathing helm, and decided a cold frown might be more appropriate. “Zero, I assume?”

“Idiot, I assume? Don’t use no names.”

Bala sat down as the Uanyi slid into place. The alien’s sibilant hissing made Bala’s nose wrinkle. “Yeah, right. I just—”

A meaty palm slapped the table. “Get on with it. Don’t got all night.”

Bala considered asking Zero if he learned English at Bothmal. But he refrained. “Yes, well, I need to ask you some important questions, and I expect honest answers. I work for the—”

The meaty palm was at it again, slapping the table. “You brought my stuff?”

Bala ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. “Yes, but I’m not about to give you anything until you tell me what I need to know.”

“Huh! Human, you brute.” Apparently, even Uanyi thugs liked to apply understated sarcasm.

Bala squared his shoulders and spoke through clenched teeth. “You haven’t seen anything—”

“Four hundred.”

A puzzled frown crossed Bala’s face. “Excuse—?”

“You waste my time. I make you pay extra.”

“The deal was three hundred, and I’m not about to—”

Zero moved faster than Bala had thought possible. Lurching across the table, he pulled Bala up close and personal, Bala’s small, black eyes nearly touching the Uanyi’s enormous, bulging orbs. “Do what I say—”

To Bala’s utter relief and eternal gratitude, Riko suddenly gripped Zero by the back of his rubbery neck. His large, bulging arms flexed till they seemed like they would burst either his immaculate white shirtsleeves or Zero’s neck.

Zero released Bala as he tried to pry himself free from Riko’s grip.

Riko squeezed harder. “A deal is a deal, trash, now tell the man what he wants to know.”

Bala stared at Riko, a delighted smile tugging at his lips.

Zero squirmed like a fish out of water, but Riko reached over and grabbed Zero’s breather helm, hissing something in Uanyi, which did not sound one bit nice by Bala’s estimation.

Riko blinked his huge eyes with a deadpanned expression, his head tilted toward Bala. “What’d ya want to know?”

Amazed at his piece of unprecedented good fortune, Bala jumped in. “Right, yes! I want to know who killed Carol Hoggsworth.” He dragged his charmed smile off Riko and replaced it with his formal interrogation glare, one he had practiced in the mirror at home until Kendra told him to stop. “I know the murderer was part of a Uanyi gang, and I suspect he was one of your—”

Zero’s breathing grew ragged as he struggled to get his words out. “Cho. His. Name. Was. Cho.” Riko loosened his grip and Zero sucked in a shuddering breath. “But you can’t have him. Someone else got him. Last week.”

Riko dropped Zero back into the booth and released his breather helm. “See, that wasn’t so hard. Next time, be quicker, and you’ll find things go easier.” Riko raised an eyebrow at Bala, tapping his foot.

Bala straightened and dug into his pocket. “Oh, yes!” He pulled out a small computer chip and slid it across to Zero. “Three hundred, just as we agreed. Thank you.” He leaned in, folding his hands as if they were buddies having a friendly chat. “Now, would you happen to know about someone named Jane Right?”

“Never heard of her.” Zero rubbed his swollen neck.

“How about Justine?”

“Listen, you only paid for one—”

Riko slapped Zero across the head with the back of his rubbery hand. “If you don’t want my prints all over your body, you better get generous real quick.”

Zero glared at Riko but kept his seat. “Justine? Yeah, heard of it. Big gun, they say. Someone let it out of the freezer. It’s on the loose. If you got Justine working for you… maybe we can make a new deal.”

Bala pursed his lips into a silent whistle and shook his head, darting a glance at Riko.

Riko gripped Zero by the neck again, lifting him to his feet. “Closing time.”

Zero glared at Riko and ambled to the door, tossing back a parting insult. “Humani.”

Exhaling a long sigh, Bala stood and watched Zero lurch over the threshold.

Riko called out after the retreating figure. “Your mother’d be ashamed. Wash up before going home; you smell like a sewer.”

The door chime clanged as the door slammed.

Bala turned to Riko. A handshake wasn’t an option. “Mother?”

Riko shrugged. “My sister’s youngest. Drugs, experiments, idiot stuff. Nothing but heartbreak.”

Bala shook his head, his hands flapping at his side. “I don’t know how to thank you. Really, I don’t have the resources to bargain well. I’ll tell Clare—”

“Forget it. I didn’t do it for you…particularly. It was just something that needed to be done. The right thing. You know.” Bala swallowed. He did know. He was just surprised that Riko knew.

~~~

Dry winds rustled across the harvested fields on the outskirts of Waukee. Weak rays of sunlight spread out like a heavenly fan, making a brave pretense of warming the land.

As he strode along, Cerulean attempted to soak in the Newearth scent, but he shivered. He felt weak and washed out, like paints with too much water added. He had never felt like this before. Luxonians didn’t ordinarily get sick. The illness that had nearly decimated the female population a century before had been easy to fix, once they knew what was wrong. Similar to the effect penicillin had on human illness in Oldearth history. Patting his arms, Cerulean considered the possibilities. He could simply be exhausted. Or he might have picked up some foreign illness during his work among aliens. Perhaps he had attempted to maintain his human form for too long. Or maybe…he was dying.

He sniffed again, worried. But with some relief, he realized that there was nothing to smell. All living organisms had hidden themselves deep in the soil or slept in organic repose. A picture appeared in his mind: snow swirling from a white sky as he guarded Anne’s sleeping form on a long winter night. So long ago. A searing pain shot through his chest. A human body told his Luxonian mind things he didn’t want to know.

Justine, apparently indifferent to the stark beauty of a Newearth winter, swayed easily at his side, moving as naturally as any woman he’d ever seen. His gaze flickered over her. She could never be Anne or Clare, yet she was refreshingly desirable, something he couldn’t explain to himself. Her body was a biomechanical hybrid created by a race that remained utterly mysterious and ominously dangerous.

Justine stopped and tapped Cerulean’s arm. Her brow furrowed as one hand rested akimbo against her hip. “Before we get there, I want you to tell me the truth.”

Cerulean closed his eyes so as not to roll them in exasperation. He had just spent a couple hours with Bala and his family; the eye roll was becoming second nature. “As I pointed out earlier, Clare is investigating Derik’s case, and I think she could benefit from your…wisdom.”

Justine’s penetrating stare surveyed his face, searchlights looking for any hint of a lie. “What am I going to get in exchange?”

“A friend.”

“Do I need another friend?”

“No one has too many friends.”

Justine’s gaze fixed onto Cerulean’s, unabashedly, hauntingly.

Cerulean’s heart thudded against his ribs. He rubbed his temple and flicked a glance across the street at the transport station. A Bhuac wearily climbed the steps. He knew how he felt.

“Listen, Justine, I can’t help Clare help Derik without your help… if that makes any sense. People do better when they work together. Everyone sees a different part of the picture, and we’ll put the puzzle together piece by piece.”

Justine’s chin jutted forward. “I believe you just mixed your metaphors.”

Cerulean stalked forth again, his hands clenched. “Oh, hell, I’m mixing more than metaphors!”

Justine’s long skirt rippled in the winter breeze, outlining the perfect shape of her legs.

After another long block and across a quiet street, Cerulean led Justine to Clare’s porch. Vibrations of Mozart’s Ninth Symphony poured forth from the neighbor’s house. Cerulean appraised Justine with a quick breath. “Just act natural. Be yourself. You’re here as my friend, and you want to help. That’s all that Clare needs to know. Really.”

Justine squared her shoulders. “I don’t want to help her. I want to help you.”

“Same thing.” Cerulean pressed the doorbell. Nothing. He knocked. Nothing. He rapped his knuckles loudly on the doorframe. Nothing.

Justine tilted her head, appraising the structure before her. “Let me.” She gripped the doorframe and shook it till the whole house rattled.

Cerulean’s shoulders slumped.

The door swung open. Clare’s wide-eyed expression nearly engulfed her face as she peered out the door. “What the—?”

Her gaze flew to Cerulean and then swept over the tall, shapely, well-dressed woman in front of her.

Cerulean leaped into the breach. “Hi, Clare. I thought you were expecting us?”

“Tomorrow.”

“No…today.”

Clare looked from Cerulean to Justine.

Justine mouthed the syllables, “To-day” without uttering a sound.

Clare stared down at her stained sweatshirt, baggy pants, and fluffy slipper-clad feet and stepped aside, her folded arms pressed against her chest. “Well, in any case, it’s nice to see you. Welcome to my humble abode.” Clare smothered her grimace with a tight smile.

Cerulean marched in. Justine swayed in. Clare stumbled up behind.

Reviewing the assortment of artifacts on the shelves, new paintings on the walls, and a speckled Cresta fern in the corner, Cerulean offered a low whistle of approval. “You’ve been delving into the world of alien art and culture?”

Her arms cemented to her chest, Clare glowered a low glance at Justine. “Yeah? So? I decided to try and understand the Cresta mindset a bit better. That so bad?”

Cerulean turned and frowned. “No, not bad. Just not something I’d expect from you.”

Hustling to the center of the room, her stance wide, ready for a fight, except for the fact that her hands were still stuffed under her arms across her chest, Clare huffed. “Why not from me?”

“Well, for one, you’ve never shown any appreciation of art before, and two, you have no great love for Crestas.”

With a dramatic unfolding and accompanied fling of her freed arm, Clare gestured to the room as if giving testimony. “Can’t you see? I’m growing—okay?”

Justine sauntered over to a half-finished clay statue on a pottery wheel, listing precariously to one side. She peered at it critically. “How primitive.” She batted her innocent eyes at Cerulean. “You never told me Clare had children.”

Clare’s jaw jutted out as she blew air between her teeth. “No, that’s mine. I know it’s not very good, but I’m just learning. Kendra calls it art therapy.”

Justine’s brows furrowed in concern, still focused on Cerulean as if Clare were deaf as well as blind. “You didn’t tell me that she was impaired.”

Clare stomped her slippered foot, the fluffy ends wafting in the sudden breeze. “Cerulean!”

With a shake of his head, Cerulean lifted his hands. “Stop, you two! We’re here to help Derik. Remember?”

A crimson blush spreading over her cheeks, Clare tossed a bag over the statue. “Thanks, but I’m the official detective on his case, and I’ve decided that I don’t need your help.” She turned back to Cerulean. “I know you mean well, but I work best alone.”

“What about Bala?”

“I have him on another case. Besides, I need to keep my professional life separate. I shouldn’t have told you my troubles. You’re a great person—Luxonian, I mean—but you can’t possibly understand.”

Cerulean clasped his hands and bowed slightly. “I defer to your superior wisdom. But the truth is, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Justine is more involved than you realize, and I don’t think you can help Derik without hearing what she has to say.”

Clare’s expression frosted as her voice grew icy. “I don’t need help from an ex-convict. I’m dealing with a crime against humanity by a Cresta, and no robot—no matter how well… endowed—is going to be able to help me. It’s going to take every bit of my training to—”

The front door slammed in the wake of Justine’s departure.

Cerulean exhaled a long, weary breath and raked his fingers through his hair. “Good job, Detective. You just made an enemy of Taug’s hired gun.”

“Even God doesn’t propose to judge a man till his last days, why should you and I?” ~Dale Carnegie

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Nine

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

Bala leaned over the professor’s ornate, Oldearth-styled desk and pounded his fist. “Stop lying!”

Professor Baltimore, a connoisseur of ancient civilizations with a decided bent toward OldEurope, was dressed in a tweed jacket, a white collared shirt, and black slacks. Since he was spindly, pallid, and had a voice that shrieking birds might covet, apparel and atmosphere would have to suffice for intimidation purposes. He sat back and pursed his lips in a petulant sneer. “Don’t try to frighten me.”

“I wouldn’t have to if you would stop playing games. We both know that you had an argument with Mrs. Hoggsworth the night before she died, and we both know that it had something to do with the paper you assigned—”

“To blazes with you!” Stretching every millimeter of his skinny frame, the professor shot to his feet. “That woman could argue a Cresta to the Divide and back! She liked to argue. She just happened to pick me to argue with that fateful day because her son, Timmy the Terror, complained that I was unfair. So like the youth of today. They’re always complaining! If you really want to know who killed her, you might try asking that miserable wretch of a husband of hers. Poor man, tied to that volcano. There are probably hundreds who’d love to carry her casket to burial, just to be sure that she’s in the ground, never to raise her voice again.”

Bala straightened and chuckled. “You’re rather good at this.”

Professor Baltimore glared through his ultra-fashionable, Oldearth wire-framed spectacles. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“You maneuvered the argument away from your lies and onto Mrs. Hoggsworth’s personality. Very neatly done. I can see why the students fear you.”

Professor Baltimore smirked as he swaggered around his desk. “Flattery won’t get you anywhere.”

Bala paced over to the classroom chalkboard. “You still use one of these? Why not a holo-screen?”

“This is a history class. I like to bring the past to life. Besides, holo-screens don’t have the same effect when you run your fingernails across them.”

Bala nodded. He picked up a piece of chalk and started writing awkwardly. His body blocked the professor’s view. “Wow, I haven’t done anything like this since Sister Mary-Origen took us to an Oldearth exhibit and let us play with the replicas.”

In silent retaliation, the professor inched his way around the table, shuffling a few papers as he did so. His glance darted to the chalkboard. He lunged for the eraser, but Bala was faster.

“Tut, tut, professor! Don’t be in such a rush to erase my masterpiece. I never get a chance to create art, at least not with chalk.”

Professor Baltimore cocked an ear to the quiet hallway, then rushed to the door and shut it with a sharp click. He strode back to the front of the room and snapped out his hand.

Bala held the eraser aloft. “First tell me what you don’t like about my work. After all, I might learn something. You’re a smart man with many years of education. In fact, how old are you?”

“That is none of your business. Now erase what’s on that board or—”

“What? Granted, you might be a few milligrams heavier than me, but I’m faster and if it comes to that, I can outrun you the livelong day. Now, tell me—” Bala turned to the chalkboard where he had scrawled, “Governor Jane Right is….” in huge letters. “—what’s so wrong with my work?”

“You think you’re clever, but you have no idea who you are playing with.” Professor Baltimore stroked his beard. “You’re like the students, children really, who come in here day after day, thinking they’re ready for the knowledge that I can impart, but they have no idea of the responsibility involved. Studying history is very much like absorbing an attribute of God.”

Bala clapped his chalky hands dramatically. “So, as you play God, do you help out a few illustrious friends and write new histories, new family trees, impale the past with your chosen glory?”

The professor’s eyes lit up, blinking in watery admiration. “Lord, that’s a good line! I think I’ll steal it.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Perhaps not. But that is quite beyond your scope of understanding.” The professor returned to his desk and tapped on the computer console embedded on the surface. “You’re a detective, and you want to find a murderer. Fine. I will tell you everything I know about Mrs. Hoggsworth’s death.”

Professor Baltimore darted around the desk, snatched the eraser, and began brushing away the offending words as he spoke. “She came in here, shrieked at me in an incomprehensible rage for twenty minutes, and then stalked out into a dark and dangerous city.” His glare darted over his shoulder at Bala. “Likely as not, she screamed at some poor unfortunate thug who happened to be on his humble way to pillage or burn the nearest town.” He slapped down the eraser, raising a cloud of dust. “In any case, she annoyed someone who followed her home, blew a hole through her middle, and walked away undoubtedly feeling quite refreshed by the experience.”

Stroking his chin, Bala considered the possibilities. “So, I am looking for a petty thief?”

“Someone for hire, most likely.”

“And my artwork?”

Professor Baltimore appraised the blurry smear on the board. “There was nothing there.”

As Bala opened his mouth, a bell clanged and hundreds of hurrying footsteps flooded the hall.

Professor Baltimore smiled serenely. “Ah, saved by the clang.”

~~~

The Hoggsworth house was old, for Newearth that is, and exuded the dignified charm of a well-kept manor. It was situated on a comfortable corner lot in an upper-class, tranquil neighborhood inhabited by professional families who lived well and undoubtedly expected to die that way. They were a rare community of open-minded beings who mixed freely with others of their elevated social status. Crestas with advanced degrees and Ingots in government positions, especially diplomacy and political affairs, were accepted by the human inhabitants and in turn tolerated the Bhuacs and Uanyi hired for their discreet services in the area of child care and domestic duties.

In the somnolent living room, Bala stood awkwardly, first on one foot and then shifting to the other. He folded his hands and tossed a beseeching look heavenward. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just hoped—”

“You hoped what? That you’d solve my wife’s murder by asking for details that tear me up inside? Frankly, I don’t give a damn anymore. It could’ve been a Cresta, a mindless Uanyi, or one of Baltimore’s students hoping for extra points. Nothing is going to bring Carol back. God, can’t we let it go?”

Bala flicked his gaze to the ceiling again, asking for guidance from an unseen source. “Look, someone killed your wife, and it’s in humanity’s best interest if we find out who. Otherwise—”

Mr. Hoggsworth slumped deeper into his overstuffed chair. “Oh hell. I’m not usually so selfish. But it’s been a trying week.”

Bala knelt and laid his hand on the gentleman’s arm. “I am sorry about your loss. I love my wife too, and if something happened to her, I’d go crazy. But Carol Hoggsworth deserves justice, and she can’t be at peace with her murderer running free.”

Mr. Hoggsworth’s eyes filled with tears. “I had to send Tim off to my sister’s place up north. He nearly lost his mind—plots of revenge. Look, you’re a decent fellow, Mr.—”

“Just Bala. My last name is a tongue twister. I had to spell it three times before the registrar would sign my birth certificate.”

A snort wrestled a grin free from Mr. Hoggsworth’s grief. He took a deep breath and sat up straighter. “To begin with, I think you need to understand who my wife really was.” Mr. Hoggsworth heaved himself out of his chair and ambled over to a roll-top desk. He shuffled through several tiny drawers until he found a miniature key. Beckoning Bala with the tiny, metal piece pinched between his fingers, he started forward. “Now, I’ve never shown this to anyone except my son, so I expect you to keep this a professional secret.”

Bala’s eyebrows rose as he followed Mr. Hoggsworth to a small bookcase on the back wall. A few tattered copies of ancient reference books and the usual Oldearth décor ornamented the shelf. Mr. Hoggsworth pulled out a faux Webster’s dictionary and pressed the key into a hidden wall hole. A click and a snap made Bala step back. One section of the wall opened, revealing a second bookcase stocked with a variety of books, all ancient and authentic.

“These were my wife’s treasures. They’re real history books that refer back to the Greeks and Romans and detail archeological finds with photos of ancient excavations and reference charts that illuminate the who’s who of history. Carol was extremely proud of our heritage. One thing she could not abide was this recent trend of changing historical records to make certain personalities appear better than they really are. It’s like how certain socialites claimed to be descended from the original Mayflower. All a bunch of hullabaloo.”

Bala tapped tentatively on one of the leather bindings and grinned. “I wish you had a cookbook among these treasures.”

Mr. Hoggsworth pursed his lips. “Well, if you’d like to know about the diets of Native Americans, Chinese, or Celts, there are recipes here. Carol once made a dish of roasted pork with fruit and wild rice that was absolutely delicious.”

Bala gulped for air. “Heaven, help me. How—?”

“She never told, but I believe that was the year when she and my son went on a three-day trip to the International Wildlife Center. Their bags bulged suspiciously when they returned.”

“I wish I had known her.” A beeping from his datapad forced Bala to check his message. “My wife would like help getting the kids in bed. All in caps.” Bala sighed and refocused on the case as he caressed a thick book. “So you think that Carol recognized a misrepresentation in Professor Baltimore’s work, confronted him, and he killed her?”

“I don’t think he did, but I think he alerted someone who did. Professor Baltimore is a mouse, but he’s clearly acquainted with a lion or two.” Mr. Hoggsworth retrieved the volume from Bala’s hand and pressed it back in the case. He relocked the cabinet.

Bala stepped back amiably enough, his mind shifting to new questions. “When I was reviewing your wife’s files, I found several articles about Governor Right.”

“Jane Right?”

“You know her?”

“I know of her… well, actually, we went to school together. Carol was her classmate. First, they were friends. Then, they were rivals. By the end, they were enemies.”

“Could she have discovered something that would rock the governor’s world?”

“Possibly. But Governor Right is not one to get her hands dirty. Not her. Besides, even if Carol knew, she wouldn’t bother with Jane. She couldn’t care less about politics. She wanted her son to trust his teachers, to know that they were telling the truth. Hence, the argument with Old Baltimore.”

“I see. Well, thank you. You’ve been most helpful.” Bala turned to go but then stopped mid-step. “Oh, I also noticed a few references to someone named Justine. I wasn’t sure if that was a file name or a person. Do you happen to know?”

“Justine? Doesn’t ring a bell. But, you know, Carol collected friends. I hardly knew them all.”

Bala bowed and swept out the door.

~~~

Clare stood outside Cerulean’s cabin on a patch of well-tilled soil and watched him scatter seeds in a wide arc from a bag looped over his shoulder. The sun shone down from a clear sky, while birds chirped encouragement from distant branches.

She tapped her foot. “You’ve taken up gardening?”

“It’s winter wheat. I’ll harvest it next summer.”

“Really?”

“And I’ll make the best bread this side of the Great Divide.” Clare pursed her lips. “Why?”

Cerulean looked up, shading his eyes from the bright sun behind Clare. “Why not? Bread is more than a staple for—”

“You know, I’m here on official business, and I don’t have time to watch you act out some antiquated Amens’ tradition.”

Cerulean tossed the last handful and patted his flattened bag, a frown darkening his face. “You’ve got an attitude.”

“Nothing new.” Clare padded across the lawn.

Folding his arms across his chest, Cerulean didn’t budge. “No, but I don’t happen to like this one.”

“Come on, Cerulean! I’m in a hurry. I have a supervisor who thinks that life is too short and wants every case solved yesterday.”

“Which case?”

“The Hoggsworth murder. I’ve got Bala going over things, but I’m not about to give up on Derik. You said you knew something. Tell me, so that I can go dig Bala out of whatever hole he’s gotten himself into.”

“Bala is a very competent detective.” Cerulean looked at the rectangular field and scratched his jaw. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to eat this much bread. You think Kendra would want some?”

“Kendra loves any sustenance, any time. Now, hurry up and talk!”

Cerulean strolled to the porch, pointing west with the folded pouch. “The strawberries will be ripe by then. I’ll try my hand at jam to go with the bread.”

Clare shook her head. “The Amens have turned you into a nature freak.”

Cerulean’s eyebrows rose as he looked back at her. “I’ll have you know, I was working on a farm generations before you were even born.”

Clare stopped at the bottom porch step and tapped her foot.

Cerulean heaved himself to the top step and sat. He looked Clare in the eye. “I went to Derik’s apartment to see how he’s getting along. I met someone I didn’t expect.”

Clare threw her hands out. “So? Is there a reason I should care? Wait. You didn’t meet his new love interest—Justine?” Clare kicked the step. “Poor, stupid guy. Is he in love with an old flame of yours? You never tell me much about your…life.”

Cerulean huffed. “That’s because there isn’t anything to tell. I wish you’d listen before leaping. How do you ever manage to solve a case?”

“End of lecture. Go on.”

“Yes, it was Justine, but Justine isn’t a love interest of mine, she’s a…person I met a long time ago. She was on trial.”

An I-knew-it eye-roll accompanied a puff of breath. “Uh-huh.”

“I was surprised to see her—alive.” Cerulean clasped his hands and stared off into the distance.

“Alive?”

“Last time I saw her, she was on a steel table being turned off.”

Clare’s mouth dropped open. “As in a robot?”

“She’s an android. A very advanced android. You’d never guess, unless you knew her history. Even then, you might not believe it.”

Clare slapped her forehead. “So, Derik is in love with a robot?”

Cerulean bounded to his feet. “Justine is not a robot. She’s a person, a combination of modern technology and fetal—”

“Don’t give me that! She’s one of those… those things that go around pretending to be human but are hired out for every dirty job under—”

“Stop! Listen to yourself. You’re not even giving me a chance.” Cerulean clambered down the steps, pushed past Clare, and pounded down the path to the woods.

Clare hustled after him. “Okay, okay! Don’t get angry. But you gotta admit; this is pretty bad. I mean, Derik’ll be crushed.”

Cerulean pivoted and faced Clare. “Human beings are quite resilient. Trust me, I ought to know.” He hustled down the path again, allowing room for Clare to keep pace at his side.

Ignoring the branches scratching against her jacket, Clare glanced at Cerulean. “So, is this Justine a nice robot-person? I mean, she isn’t a hired gun or anything.”

Cerulean paced further into the woods. “Well, actually, she was a hired gun. That’s why she was on trial. But it was a long time ago; she’s changed.”

“Terrific, just terrific! How long ago?”

“Seventy years, give or take….”

“Lord, she’s twice Derik’s age!”

“Three or four times, I’d imagine.”

“Then what is she doing? It’d be like my great-great-grandmother trying to date you. Oh, except—”

“I’d still be older by a millennium.”

“Geesh, you non-humans really mess up the romantic time-line.” Clare kept in step with Cerulean as they wound between trees. A vine clutched her pant leg and forced her to stop. “Dang these prickles. Why didn’t you eradicate them when you bought the place?”

“I like nature and all her wild and prickly personalities.” Cerulean stared down at Clare and a smile softened his features. “One of the reasons I like you.”

Sucking a pricked finger, Clare glowered. “If you like me so much, help me get unstuck. This thing is cutting me to shreds.”

Cerulean gently lifted the vine off her leg and tossed it aside. “See, you just need to know how to handle nature.”

Clare blushed. “Stay on topic.” She started forward again. “Shouldn’t Derik know? I mean his heart’s beating pretty fast for a woman who’s not even human, and who might be planning to dig him a grave so she can rack up some extra units.”

Cerulean peered up at the mottled sunlight pouring through the trees. “Things are rarely what they seem—except when they are.”

“Is that supposed to help?”

Making a one-eighty turn, Cerulean started back up the path. “I’ll talk with Justine. She trusts me, and she owes me a favor. If she’s been hired to kill Derik, she’ll tell me.”

Clare flapped her arms and skipped aside to avoid a scampering chipmunk. “Why should she talk to you? Didn’t you say you were at her trial, where apparently, she was found guilty?”

“Yeah, but thanks to me, she still has her mind.” He darted a meaningful look at Clare. “After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. ~William Shakespeare 

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eight

Just the Beginning

“Come along, big fellow, keep up with me. For your large size, you take such tiny steps.” Governor Jane Right forged ahead of Taug down the long, bright hallway of the Territorial Capitol.

Taug’s somber gaze dropped to the floor. “It’s the boots. They aren’t built for a quick pace.”

Austere nameplates with gold lettering testified to the worthiness of the inhabitants secreted behind ornate doors on the top floor.

Taug ignored the doors and concentrated on his balance as he tried to stay close enough to the governor to have a word with her. “I thought I was going to meet you inside your office.”

She didn’t bother looking back as he trailed along behind. “What? And have every tongue wagging about Governor Right’s private meetings with an unknown Cresta? No, that wouldn’t do. It’s much better that you state your business out here while we walk. Keep your secrets in plain sight, I always say.”

“But couldn’t someone—”

“Eavesdrop? In the office, more likely. Listening devices planted from floor to ceiling, I’m sure. No one ever thinks of bugging the hallway. Besides, until I know what you want, I can’t waste my time.”

“A laboratory.” Taug huffed, attempting to adjust his breathing helm. Never in all the deepest waters…

“A laboratory? What for? We have plenty of labs in the hospitals, and I believe Central University has the best on the planet.” A simper twitched across her face. “Being a bit greedy, aren’t you?”

Taug slowed his pace as they neared a narrow, circular stairway extending from the blue, star-spackled, domed ceiling down to a brightly lit, green-tiled floor, creating the illusion of descending from a brilliant night sky to sunny Newearth.

One tentacle stroked Taug’s chin doubtfully. “Not at all. I have an idea that cannot be shared, except with a chosen few.”

“Huh.” Governor Right pointed to the steep steps. “Can you handle these?”

Taug hesitated. “Possibly, if we go slow enough.”

“Here give me your hand… or a tentacle. Whatever.”

Taug placed a tentacle inside Governor Right’s surprisingly strong grip and held on for dear life.

Concentrating on Taug’s every step, like a mother taking her toddler into deep waters, the middle-aged woman furrowed her brow. “I need to know who’s giving the party and why.”

Taug laid each mechanical boot firmly on the step before lifting the other free. A sudden flashback of struggling onto land for the first time as a hatchling flashed through his mind.

“There is no party, I assure you. Only me and one other. I will have to hire a few assistants, but they will be completely in the dark as to the grander purpose.”

“So what’s the grand purpose?”

“To create crossbreeds.”

Governor Right shook her head apparently at both their slow descent and the comment. “Whatever for?”

“To become invincible. Why else?”

The governor’s eyes never strayed from his boots as Taug inched himself down. “Invincible? How?”

“If I can blend Cresta intelligence with human, terrestrial capability, I can cultivate the brilliance of each species in the service of those who know how to manage a planet.”

“Any others?”

Taug glanced up, an eyebrow raised, his mouth orifice puckered.

An eye-roll communicated the governor’s impatience with Taug’s obtuse understanding. “Why not Cresta with Uanyi? Or human with Ingot?”

Taug shrugged off the governor’s unbounded ambition. “There are no limits to the possibilities, but Cresta and human would be the best combination to begin with.”

Governor Right’s hand flew out protectively as Taug stumbled. Her voice hardened. “Something could go wrong, and we’d have a mess on our hands.”

The green-tiled floor was only one step away and Taug beamed. “Many things could go right, and we’d have the most versatile, powerful beings in our grasp.”

The governor’s tight lips broke into a mirrored grin as she assisted Taug onto solid footing. “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Taug wiggled his tentacle free of Governor Right’s grasp. “Thank you.”

Glancing around before starting forward, Governor Right beckoned him to stay close. “What’ll I get?”

“Whatever you need.” Taug wrapped his tentacles around his middle as he negotiated his way across the crowded floor. Even a minor slap with a tentacle could have serious consequences.

Her grin turned ironic. She glanced back. “Your Cresta word of honor?”

Taug offered a slight bow as he hustled out a wide doorway behind her.

A cool breeze played havoc with the governor’s coiffured hair. “Thought as much. I want a full report each month, in person. Nothing written, of course.” Halting on a busy sidewalk, she scanned the street.

Pedestrians rushed at a city pace on either side as the Vandi traffic roared in urbane, noonday routine.

“Naturally.”

Never taking her eyes off her environment, Governor Right leaned over and whispered. “Oh, and I want to meet one, as soon as you have it ready.”

Taug stiffened. “Would that be necessary?”

“No. But it’d be thrilling. Everyone needs some excitement now and again.”

Taug bowed to the inscrutable.

With a new light in her eye, the governor lifted her arm and waved with broad, commanding strokes. “Ah, here comes my secretary. I have a meeting with the Inter-Alien Alliance committee in a few minutes. Pay attention now.” She wiggled two beckoning fingers at a man crossing traffic. “George! Here!” She again leaned toward Taug. “My private secretary. Contact him when you need something.”

Taug extracted a datapad from his bio-suit. “I have a list.”

Snorting back her laugh, the governor beckoned George again. “How very efficient of you. So Cresta.”

A snappy dresser with black hair, brooding eyes, and squared shoulders sprang across the street and lightly stepped forward.

“George, this is Taug, a special ambassador from Cresta. We are assisting him in a private matter. You’ll see that he gets everything he needs.”

George appraised Taug in a sweeping and ever-so-disdainful glance. His voice was as dry as the sidewalk he stood upon. “Certainly.”

“Thank you.” Taug turned to Governor Right. “It has been an honor.”

Governor Right grinned, grasped one of Taug’s tentacles, and shook it formally. “Just the beginning, I’m sure.”

Taug stood back as George led the governor towards a waiting vehicle. The patient Cresta cradled his aching tentacle close to his body, his half-lidded eyes glowing like embers.

~~~

Curved walls glowed white against state-of-the-art, red shelving units packed with pristine lab equipment. An unoccupied dissection tube extended from one wall, while medical instruments stood lined up on neat tables like soldiers ready for the next battle.

“Do you like it?” Taug’s usual confidence expanded as he waved a tentacle in an arching manner, encompassing the vast room in one magnificent sweep. “I always wanted to follow up on my father’s work, and now I have my chance.”

Derik took a tentative step into the massive laboratory. “But where… how? Did the Cresta government give you all this?”

Taug lumbered closer, a sheepish grin spreading his puffy lips wide. “Ah, no, that would be most unlikely. The Cresta High Council would like nothing more than to see me safely returned to Crestar. They have plans. I have plans. At some distant point, the two shall meet.”

Derik appraised the expensive bio-scanners, surgical tools, the specimen containers, steel tables, bright lights, tubs of various solutions, and the central dissecting tube with miniature tubes, like petals, jutting from the wall. The entire room was bathed in a soft, white glow. In the back, a transparent wall offered a view into an enormous aquarium.

Derik stepped closer, his jaw dropping and his eyes widening. “You keep fish—in your own Cresta pool?”

“Just for eating, when I get hungry after a hard day.”

“Why not just keep them preserved, frozen or something?”

Taug followed Derik’s astonished gaze and burst into giggles, his tentacles writhing in mirth. “I forget; you are as ignorant as a hatchling.”

Derik itched to take off his mechanical boots. He couldn’t account for this sudden longing to jump into the Cresta-sized aquarium.

Taug scooted closer and, with a tilt of his head, appraised Derik’s gaze. “Yes, you feel it, don’t you? The pull of water? Once you’ve been trained, we’ll go in together. It’ll be fun. It may be the most pleasant thing you’ve ever done.”

Derik’s eyes remained fixed on the pool, his tone apathetic. “I’ve been swimming before, but I never liked it much. It was okay—”

“But it never felt right. Of course not. A Crestar pool is quite different. A human would no more enjoy a dip in a Crestonian sea than he would like to splash about in a bowl of vegetable soup. But for us, it’s magnificent.”

Derik slid his hands across the thick glass. His splayed fingers caressed the surface. His voice grew husky. “When?”

Taug nodded, a gleam in his eye darting from the pool to Derik. “Soon. But first I need to understand you better. You are unique in a universe of unique beings. That said, I must understand how to best adapt you to Cresta life.”

Never shifting his gaze off the pool, Derik hunched his shoulders. “Cresta life? Why? Newearth is my home.”

“Someday you may wish to visit our…your world.” Taug’s golden eyes appraised Derik’s form. “It would be a shame if that visit were hampered by poor adaptations. Once we understand your biology better, we can fashion appropriate gear to make your visit on Crestar most enjoyable. I assure you, many Crestas will view you as a hero. You will swim everywhere acclaimed—”

“I’m no hero!” Derik’s voice sharpened as he slapped the glass. “Just a mixed-breed, nobody.”

Taug laid a tentacle around Derik’s arm and gripped it firmly. “One thing you must learn now, before anything else: Crestas are scientists. We have inquisitive minds that never rest. No Inter-Alien Alliance or planetary treaty can keep us from our natural right—to pursue knowledge. Anyone who assists us is a hero.”

Derik’s gaze bore down on Taug’s face. “How?”

“Allow me to study your biology and learn how my father created you. Then, perhaps someday, you will not be alone.”

Turning from Taug back to the pool of murky green water, Derik’s voice fell to a whisper. “I’m not alone.” He darted a quick glance at Taug. “What’s in it for you—personally—I mean?”

“Success brings many rewards. Don’t worry; I’ll be well compensated, in the end.” Taug padded to a wall on which hung a variety of breathing apparatus. “Though I planned on waiting, I think you need a little reward now. Here, put this on and come with me.”

Derik held the apparatus at eye level, scrutinizing it. A quizzical expression spread across his face. “What is it?”

“It’ll help you breathe while we swim. I’ve been adapting it, just for you. I want to see how well it works before we begin our studies.”

“So, you’re not going to kill me—ever?”

“I have no immediate plans to kill you.” Taug lumbered toward a side hallway.

Derik trailed along behind. “Somehow, that didn’t sound as comforting as I hoped.”

Taug and Derik disappeared into the dark hall, leaving the laboratory silent and empty.

Suddenly the waters in the tank were stirred and millions of bubbles floated in an arc toward the surface. Taug, swimming as gracefully as a porpoise, flashed by. His feet, free of the mechanical boots, paddled like luminescent fins. He circled up and around, dashing about like a child at play, swirling bubbles in his wake.

He dove away and returned with one tentacle wrapped around Derik. The breathing apparatus with attached goggles was strapped tight across Derik’s face. His wide eyes stared straight ahead, frozen in panic. Despite Taug’s support, Derik remained as limp as a noodle.

Taug began stoking Derik’s arm with a free tentacle.

The anxiety in Derik’s eyes faded. He began kicking his legs and stroking the water with his arms. Slowly, but more confidently with each movement, he began swimming…free as a fish in the green, Cresta sea.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Seven

Humanity

Derik sat across from Justine, marveling at the vision of loveliness before him. His hand trembled as he laid it on the immaculate tablecloth in front of hers.

A crowd roared in the background. Three opposing teams rushed onto a hard floor, swinging metal balls at the end of stout poles.

Justine flicked a glance at the game before returning to Derik’s gaze.

Derik shakily touched her fingertips.

Justine observed his imploring hand, mesmerized. Slowly, she extended her hand and intertwined her fingers with his.

~~~

Inside the Breakfast Nook, the Ingot hostess pounded across the room. Clare, settled at a long bench, scrolled through her datapad and tapped her fingers on the smooth tabletop.

Derik bustled through the doorway, dark circles under his eyes, searching the room. When he saw Clare, he exhaled in relief and rushed over. “Here you are. I woke up late and couldn’t find this place again. I thought I’d miss—”

The hostess clumped back to the table. “Order?”

Derik swallowed as he appraised the huge Ingot. “Just coffee and a sweet roll—please.”

The hostess charged off.

Derik shook his head. “Is she always so charming?”

“Only when she doesn’t know you.”

Derik tugged at his collar. “You have something to tell me?”

Clare sipped her coffee, assessing him over the lip of the cup. By the time she leaned back, she had made a decision. “You got the report I sent about your DNA results and the ramifications?” Returning his nod, she continued. “You’ll have to deal with some heavy Cresta fallout. You’ll likely be a pretty smart guy as your brain capacity increases, and you’ll live a whole lot longer than the rest of us.”

Derik shrugged. “Yeah, I read all that. But it doesn’t really change anything. I’m still Derik Erlandson. As a matter of fact, I’ve met someone. She’s…well, she’s beautiful, brainy, and has a working knowledge of Oldearth poetry. Wild, eh? But what’s really weird, she likes me.”

“I take it, you like her.” Clare’s expression remained neutral, an impartial judge assessing the latest case.

A nonchalant wave of the hand and an airy tone understated his exuberance. “We’re going out again tonight.”

Clare slapped down her mug and leaned forward. “Listen, I don’t want to make you paranoid or anything, but just so you know, there’re a lot of female hired guns. They get close to their victims and then—”

As if jolted by lightning, Derik jerked forward. “Justine isn’t a hired gun!” Taking a deep breath, he scrambled for a hold on his emotions as his gaze ping-ponged off the walls. “She’s wonderful and beautiful and perfect in every way. So what if she has a mysterious past?”

“Uh-huh.”

Derik rubbed his chin nervously. “I tried looking her up, and I couldn’t find anything.”

Clare’s eyebrows rose. “That does not bode well. You checked everywhere?”

Derik bit his lip. “Everywhere that’s legal.”

Clare flicked out her datapad. “Well, just to be on the safe side, let me look into it. What’s her name?”

“Justine.”

“Justine what?”

“Just Justine. She said she didn’t believe in last names.”

“Better and better….” Tucking a wisp of hair back into place, Clare stared into Derik’s eyes. “Okay, I had every intention of telling you that I can’t help you because, to be honest, I don’t think I can. I asked a friend about you, and he wasn’t too happy. Good guy, just a little protective. Don’t worry, he’s old country, a Luxonian from way back. Anyway, he advised me to drop the case and let him look into it. Last time I talked with him, he gave me the most annoying answers, full of tell- me-nothings. But I trust him. He’d warn me if—”

“Cerulean, right? I met him. Nice enough, but the guy has really bad timing. You talk about me a lot?”

“You met him?”

“He came by my place, warned me to be careful. Like I needed a warning.”

Clare folded her arms across her chest, ready for her next lecture. “Listen, Derik, Cerulean’s a pretty important man— Luxonian—I mean. He pointed out—”

“He’s Luxonian?”

“The one who pounded together the Inter-Alien-Alliance.”

“He’s either as brave as an intergalactic trader or an utter fool.”

Clare smashed her hands together into one clenched fist as her tone rose in intensity. “Anyway, he told me that it’d be in everyone’s best interest if I try to keep you alive and well.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why?’”

“Taug has a point—”

“Perhaps you should have your head examined! Don’t confuse me! I had this all figured out. Do you remember the old stories about when Oldearth was being polluted, these environmentalists convinced people to change their ways by showing them how a healthy planet would help everyone?”

Derik raked his fingers through his hair as he dropped his weary head onto his hand. “Your point?”

“Well, if the world isn’t safe for you—is it safe for anyone?”

Derik tilted his head in a reflective attitude. “Am I worth all this trouble? I just want to be happy a while and let fate have its way. I’m tired of fighting this.”

Clare put her hand over Derik’s. “How about Justine?”

“She doesn’t need me.”

“Doesn’t she?”

“She’s already perfect. I’m only a mixed—”

“Maybe she needs someone to love. Maybe she isn’t attracted to your biology but your humanity.”

Derik snorted, his gaze turning inward. “Depends on how you define humanity.”

Clare slid off the bench and stared down at Derik. “My point exactly.”

~~~

The sun slipped behind the horizon hours ago, but Bala wasn’t ready to return to hearth and home quite yet. A single lamp pooled light on a large, mahogany desk. A framed lace embroidered with the words “Hoggsworth Family” hung at his right. Bala accidentally tilted it as he leaned over, searching through Mrs. Hoggsworth’s computer database.

Governor Jane Right? What about Jane Right? A bigwig in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, she had recently made a splash on Universal News by discovering a cache of old files that proved that her already illustrious family had a new cause to strut their stuff. He scrolled through the information and frowned. But here was a completely different take on that particular family history from a source named Justine. Hmm…

Bala sat down and ran through the files again, mumbling to himself. Who’s Justine? Whoa, if this little lady were alive today, she’d be a cache of information. Governor Jane Right better not believe in ghosts.

~~~

Bala ran at full speed, his lungs ready to burst from the effort. He slid past playing children, a speeding autoskimmer, and an amorous Uanyi couple before he reached home. He slammed through the door, skirted past a tail-waving dog, and just managed to slip onto his chair before Kendra placed a steaming plate of rice and vegetables on the table.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Man-of-mine, if you insist on being late to everything, including my fine dinners, I’m going to tie a string to you and yank when I want you home.”

Bala surveyed the table full of wide-eyed children, his eyes twinkling as he mimicked being yanked by an invisible cord. He fell to the floor, writhing, sending the children into fits of laughter.

Kendra nudged him with her foot, her eyes rolling. “Get up before it gets cold.”

Bala returned to his seat, but his bright eyes dimmed at the sight of vegetables and rice.

Kendra lifted her hand in warning. “Don’t start with your steak and egg fantasies. I’ve got young-uns to raise. You want us to get hauled before an Inter-Alien Sensitivity Commission? No, siree!”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking it and that’s just as bad.”

Bala gripped his fork like a warrior facing a battle and set his jaw. He peered at the table full of children. “Remember, I’m doing this for you.”

~~~

Bala leaned back against a maple tree aglow with fiery autumn colors and wrapped his arms around his knees, studying the sunset through falling leaves.

Kendra strolled over.

Bala’s gaze stayed fixed straight ahead. “They in bed?”

With a muted groan, she slid down next to him. “Every last, blessed one of them.”

Bala put his arm around Kendra and drew her close. “You’re one fine mama.”

“That I am.” She appraised his somber profile. “You’re not a bad papa.”

“I try.”

Kendra shared the sunset. “What’s it this time?”

He turned his gaze, and the failing sunlight played hide and seek over his features. “Hmmm?”

Caressing Bala’s furrowed brow, Kendra locked onto his gaze. “That expression. I’d know it on the dark side of the moon. You’re worried about something.”

Bala sighed and played with Kendra’s fingers, lacing his with hers. “You know, I like puzzles as much as the next man, but sometimes I hate the picture after I’ve put it all together.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

“I want to, but I’m not sure I should. Some pretty important people might be involved.”

“By important, you mean….”

“They have resources. I don’t.”

Kendra leaned in so that their noses almost touched. “In all the time I’ve known you, Bala, you have never shirked from a challenge. Remember the First All-Species Olympics?”

A half grin peeked out of Bala’s crooked smile. “That was only in fun.”

“You almost killed yourself. Iceberg climbing, they called it; idiotic, I called it. And you all scared the penguins witless.”

With a deep breath, Bala blinked back the sudden moisture in his eyes. “Back then, I didn’t think about it. I was just playing. But now—”

A child’s wail pierced the evening.

Kendra shot to her feet nearly as fast as Bala. She patted his arm in restraint. “You’re worried about us. I understand; I worry about us, too. But, man-o-mine, you’ve got to live. If you tie your spirit to safety, you’ll have to lock yourself at home. Not that you’d be safe here—”

The crying rose a decibel. Kendra strode forward. “Coming, baby.” She peered over her shoulder at Bala’s barely discernible outline against the falling night. “God made us of strong stuff. But remember, you got to the top by building steps.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched Kendra retreat inside. When the shrieking stopped abruptly, a slow smile spread wide across his face.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go. ~T. S. Elliot

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Six

A Small Matter

A sudden cold blast swirled orange and yellow leaves around like a graceful tornado. The leaden sky foretold a storm to come.

Justine strode through gleaming glass doors into the Cresta science building, a stark structure with little ornamentation, aside from brilliant white walls painted with intertwining blue-green waves, undulating in swirls along the corridor.

Justine didn’t try to hide the smirk that broke the usual straight line of her mouth as she entered. Scientists to their flabby cores. Why do they bother with primitive art?

Eschewing the lift to the fifteenth floor, she ascended the steps at a rapid pace. An overweight man with graying temples and slumped shoulders huffed his way down the steps and almost smacked into Justine, forcing her to stop. His dark-circled eyes widened in surprise, and then just as quickly, crinkled into appreciative desire.

Without hesitation, Justine took the steps three at a time, disappearing from view within seconds. By the time she reached Taug’s floor, she looked down the circular staircase and beheld the speck of a man still standing there. Her smirk turned into a headshaking frown.

“Taug?” Justine entered the laboratory and appraised the expensive medical equipment standing, hanging, and lying on steel tables. An examination tube extended from the wall while an obscured dissection victim floated in amber liquid and patiently laid in wait. A Cresta’s vision of Heaven.

A shuffling noise turned her attention to the curved wall that narrowed into a tunnel on the left.

Taug padded into view. He looked up, and his puffy lips broke into a broad grin. “You are on time. Excellent! I should’ve had more trust. I was just pondering what to do if you didn’t show up.”

Justine fingered a long tube that ended in a spray gun, her eyes wandering the length as if to judge how far it would reach. “And?”

Taug lumbered up and waved her hand off the tube. “Careful, that’s not mine. I’m here as a guest. It would cost more than I will earn in a Cresta year to pay the fine if anything were broken.” His winning grin softened the chastisement.

Justine slid her hand down the tube and turned toward a six-foot window facing the bustling city below. “What would you have done?”

Taug shook a tentacle playfully as his watery brown eyes gleamed in appreciation. “You have wit and persistence. Two traits I admire very much.” He turned toward the dissection tube. “I would have sent out a bulletin describing you down to your nano-cells, alerting the public that a dangerous android was on the loose and must be destroyed by order of the Inter-Alien Commission.”

“A lie that you could never explain away.”

“I wouldn’t have to. As far as the Inter-Alien Commission knows, you don’t exist. I could make up an extravagant lie, and they would have no knowledge to refute my argument. I would win by default.”

Justine took a step nearer the bulky form. Her eyes narrowed. “You. Are. Dangerous.”

Taug’s grin twisted, offering a one-shouldered shrug. “True. But that makes two of us. You see now why I’m so happy you came.” He padded to the window and nodded toward the milling throng appearing as multicolored dots to his Cresta eyes. “They mostly do as they are told because they lack the imagination to do otherwise.” His gaze flitted back to Justine. “Not the case with you.”

“You, a Cresta scientist, dare to flatter me?”

Taug’s shoulders shook with mirth. One tentacle reached out and patted Justine’s shoulder. “You delight me.”

Justine rebutted his twinkling gaze with glowering eyes and a set jaw.

“Yes, well.” He waddled to a desk set against the wall and pulled out an extra-large datapad, useful for beings with poor eyesight. “While you were out familiarizing yourself with your new home, I was busy at work introducing myself to my—”

“Victim?”

Taug’s eyes darkened as his fixed smile stiffened. “No, my patient. I intend to study him. My instructions are deceptively simple, but I’m not sure that anyone really understands what they mean.”

“So, why am I here? I have no interest in your studies or your instructions.”

“Your interest is beside the point. I must keep my options open. Above all, I must appear to be following orders. You will assure me of success, no matter what happens.”

“How?”

“If necessary, you will kill my patient.”

“If I would rather not?”

“Why would you not? He’s nothing to you. You care for no one, remember?”

“When did I say that?”

“You have lived that way your whole existence.”

“I might have changed.”

Taug lifted his datapad. “I am not offering you your past. I am offering you a future.” He tapped on the screen and a hologram of Justine appeared in front of them. The spaces designated for name and biography were blank. “Once this task is complete, you will be free to become whomever you wish.”

Justine paced to the window and peered at the milling throng. She could see every grimace, laugh, and furrowed brow. The image of a small crumpled face and wobbling lips forced her to close her eyes.

Taug twitched behind her.

Justine opened her eyes, turned, and locked onto his gaze. “As you say, I do not lack imagination.”

Taug beamed.

~~~

In a calf-length, billowing dress, Justine stood as still as a statue on the Vandi city sidewalk beside a red and yellow lettered sign alerting the pubic to the Book Nook’s “Out of This World Sale.”

Derik bustled by, nearly knocking it into the street.

Justine’s eyes monitored his every move as he neared the busy intersection. Scrolling through a Cresta-sized datapad, he did not see a teen weaving through the crowd in his direction. Suddenly, the boy sprang between him and a waiting Bhuac and then darted forward.

As he was jostled, Derik frowned and looked up in time to see the boy sprint in front of an on-coming autoskimmer. Derik gripped the teen’s arm and yanked him onto his backside.

Justine’s eyes narrowed.

Within seconds, Derik was at the teen’s side, concern etched across his brow.

The teen nodded and bounced to his feet.

Derik patted him on the back. In another moment, the teen was pacing away while Derik’s attention returned to his datapad.

Pursing her lips in determination, Justine marched ahead of Derik, placed herself just within his field of vision, and proceeded to step in front of an oncoming autoskimmer.

Screams set the crowd into action. A Bhuac shrieked for medical assistance, while a Cresta caught the autoskimmer driver—a shaking human with horrified eyes—in a death grip. “Reckless driver!”

The driver protested her innocence, writhing in misery.

Lying prone, Justine looked away and waited.

Derik hobbled over. “Can I help?”

Relief animated Justine’s face. She rose to a sitting position. “I’m all right, just shaken.” She jutted her chin in the direction of the driver and the outraged Cresta. “It wasn’t her fault. I wasn’t looking.” She darted a glance at the driver with a shrug. “Sorry. My mistake.”

The woman huffed, shook off the offending tentacles, and retreated to her vehicle. “Be more careful, would you? Could’ve gotten us both killed.”

Justine nodded. Her eyes skipped back to Derik, and she tilted her head charmingly. She peered into Derik’s brown orbs. Smattered offers of assistance faded into the background. “Could you find me a place to rest?”

Derik glanced about. “Vandi Park is just across the street.”

With a regal-like wave of the hand, she gestured her acceptance. “Please.”

Grinning, Derik led his damsel-in-distress through the gawking crowd. He motioned to a forest-green bench picturesquely placed underneath a golden-red maple tree.

Justine crossed her beautifully shaped legs, threw back her head as the cool autumn breeze caressed her hair, and closed her eyes.

Derik leaned against the tree, his eyes traveling over her perfect form.

Justine opened her violet eyes and caught Derik’s admiring gaze. “You’re a gentleman, sir. Most people get very excited but are of little use in a crisis.”

Raking his fingers through his hair, Derik shrugged. “I like to help when I can.”

Justine’s gaze traveled down Derik’s body, landing unceremoniously on his Cresta-style boots.

After swallowing, Derik coughed and looked away. “I’ve never seen you before. I work in the housing department, so I see almost everyone every couple of years when they renew their permits. You live around here?”

Justine shook her head and searched Derik’s pensive face. “Not yet. I just arrived a few days ago. If you have any suggestions—?”

Derik returned his gaze to her with a twinkling grin. “How about dinner and we discuss possibilities?”

Justine’s eyebrows rose. Yes, she had to agree with Taug, this mixed breed might be worth getting to know.

~~~

A solid knock shattered Derik’s free-spirited humming. His hand froze over the top button of his dress shirt as he darted a scowl from the hall mirror to the new three-paneled door. Five indecisive seconds passed before he marched over and swung the door wide. “What?”

Cerulean, straight shouldered and dressed in a casual jacket and slacks, stood before him, one eyebrow raised. “Please tell me you don’t do that every time someone knocks on your door.”

Derik’s scowl darkened. “What’s it to you?”

Cerulean pointed into the living room. “May I? This isn’t the kind of thing I like to discuss in the hallway.”

Derik threw up his hands. “Why not? Seems like everyone feels more comfortable in my living room.”

Cerulean appraised the large bookshelves, the assortment of Oldearth artifacts, and two very good oil paintings.

“You’re not here to tell me that you plan to kill me? Are you?”

Cerulean spun around. “No. Why do you ask?”

“It’s been done once this week. It’d get boring if we repeated it.”

Cerulean heaved a sigh. “That’s what I was afraid of. I told Clare this was too big for her.”

“You know Clare? The detective for Human Services?”

“She’s a friend of mine. My name is Cerulean.” He offered his hand.

Derik’s gaze shifted aside, passing up the offer. “Yeah, well, she’s a friend of mine too, but she can’t help me now.” Reflexively, Derik smoothed down his shirtsleeves.

“Why is that?”

“Listen, you just barge in here acting like you know all about me and—wait, what do you know?”

Cerulean nodded toward the couch. “May I?”

Waving his hand in impatience, Derik tramped across the room. “Just sit, would you? Now talk!”

With an ill-boding creak, the couch sagged as Cerulean sat precariously on the edge and laced his fingers. “It’s not complicated. Clare told me about your predicament. She’s gotten the DNA results back and—”

Retreating to the hall mirror, Derik made quick adjustments. He sucked in his gut, tucked his shirttails, and straightened his collar. “I got the results too. Some Cresta brain created me in his lab, and it turns out that his son—Taug by name—has been sent to eliminate his father’s—shall we say—indiscretion.”

Cerulean rose, his face flushed. “How’d you find out about Taug? I had to pull a lot of strings to learn that. It was a Taugron who created you.”

Turning from side to side, Derik nodded approval at his appearance. “Well, Taugron must be Taug’s dad because he told me that his father created me.” A quick run-through with the brush and Derik stood in front of Cerulean. “He explained the whole thing very nicely…considering.”

The sun could have just imploded from the expression on Cerulean’s face. “Taug was here?”

“Sat on that very same couch. He was actually pretty nice, even bandaged—anyway, he’s not planning on eliminating me—today.”

Cerulean slapped his hand to his cheek and paced across the room. “I don’t understand. Why reveal himself?” He spun around. “What did he want?”

White knuckling the edge of the couch, Derik tried to pass off a lighthearted shrug. “To tell me the truth. He figured that if I understood why I was created, maybe I’d be able to accept the need to eliminate me.”

“What?” Cerulean gripped Derik’s arm. “And you believe him? He’s a Cresta!”

His affected composure failing, Derik jerked his arm free. “He cares about me!”

Cerulean snorted as he backed off. “Crestas don’t care about anyone outside their own race.”

Pulling himself up to full height, Derik rolled up one sleeve and revealed his darkened, enlarged arms. “I’m Cresta, remember?”

“Only thirty-seven percent—remember?”

A sharp knock on the door froze them in place. With a shake, Derik glared at Cerulean and marched to the door.

Cerulean stepped in his way. “Be careful. You don’t know who’s out there.”

Derik nudged Cerulean aside. “My days of being careful are over. Besides, I have a date, and I’m not about to be late.”

Derik flung open the door and faced Justine’s perfect face and form.

Her violet eyes peered into his. “I thought we were supposed to meet at the Coliseum an hour ago. You didn’t show up so I—”

“An hour ago?” Derik fumbled to retrieve his datapad from a deep pocket. His eyes widened. “It’s dead! I thought these never died. I mean—sorry, come in. I appreciate your concern.” He glared at Cerulean. “Some other day, eh?” He flashed a lopsided grin at Justine. “I’ll just grab my jacket.” Derik hurried down the hall, speaking over his shoulder. “Bye, Cerulean.”

Cerulean wandered closer to the woman, mesmerized.

Justine stood her ground, her gaze roaming freely over Cerulean. An image of him standing over her filled her mind. She felt the warmth of his touch—“Cerulean?”

“Justine?”

Derik reentered the room glancing from Justine to Cerulean. “Still here?” He sidestepped the older man. “If you want to stay, fine. There’s not much to steal but lock up when you leave.” He took Justine’s arm. “Let’s go.” Suddenly he frowned and stopped in mid-step. “Wait. How’d you know where I lived?”

Justine smiled brilliantly as she wrapped his bulky arm around hers. “You said you worked at the Housing Department. I looked you up. Easy.”

Derik continued his forward momentum. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Getting paranoid.”

Justine glanced into Cerulean’s eyes as she passed. “Bye, Cerulean”

Cerulean nodded. “Justine.”

~~~

Mitholie’s relaxed, dripping face appeared on a wide holo-screen. His tentacles rested on the hard edge of a murky green pool. He beamed. “Hello, my friend! How do you like your new home?”

With aching feet and chaffed skin, Taug stood stiffly in front of a stark wall-sized screen in the laboratory and smirked in re- retaliation. “Newearth has been very pleasant, though it’s always a challenge getting accustomed to the necessary adaptations.”

“Ah, yes. I hate the suits. Life out of water.” The smug grin widened. “But never mind; you were made for adventure. I assume you have news?”

Taug huffed through his breather helm, his tentacles clenched around his middle as if holding back spontaneous combustion. “I have made contact and arranged for a skilled professional to attend to the situation.”

Mitholie’s upper body wiggled in exuberance. “Wonderful! Wonderful! The dark waters will converge, covering everything. Your father’s memory will be only that—a memory.”

Taug’s tentacles squeezed tighter. “Thank you.”

A grand wave dismissed Taug’s humility. “Don’t thank me. I just want to see you home again. Soon. There are changes planned.” Mitholie’s eyes glittered, reflecting rainbows dancing off the gentle waves.

“I will see to matters.”

“Good! Very good! I know it’s annoying, but the High Council—”

“Understood.”

Mitholie readied himself for an exuberant dive. “After all, it’s a small matter.” He nodded to the pool. “The water calls.”

Taug unwrapped his tentacles, spreading them wide in obeisance as he bowed his head.

The screen blinked into blackness.

As he stood alone in the dry, dark room, Taug’s head rose, his shoulders straightened, and a gleam sparkled from his half-lidded eyes.

“More important than finding the truth—is finding the reason why one needs to lie.”
~Mystqx Skye

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Four

Good Fortune

Clare shielded the sunlight from her somber brown eyes as she stared in fixed fascination. A Bald Eagle soared into the azure sky with a snake dangling from its beak. Shivers ran through her slim figure. Lord, how awful! And I don’t even like snakes…yet he’s glorious, can’t deny that. The twin sensations of revulsion and admiration warred within until she heard a screech in the distance, forcing her gaze from the sky

Dawn had just broken, and a vast array of beings had already flooded Vandi, ready to face another late summer day. The contrast between the conflicting races, working and living together, each jostling for their place of primacy, filled her with a fresh sense of purpose. She was one of the lucky ones. At least she had a career, something she loved and could devote her life to…not like some of these alien slugs who were merely fulfilling a politician’s promise, a diplomat’s dream, or worse yet, a bureaucrat’s nightmare.

She studied the screeching being. The human wasn’t hurt. The Cresta’s autoskimmer hadn’t even touched him, but you’d think his leg had been taken off by the way he reacted. Such a lot of screaming. A crowd was gathering.

“Creepy Cresta! What’da’ya think you’re doing? Swimming across the street? You can’t fishtail like that and expect—”

With no obvious expectations in mind except to stop the human’s tongue, the Cresta moved in for a grab.

Using mosquito-like quickness, the human offered a stinging slap to the Cresta’s hindquarters and dodged away, whining.

That did it. The Cresta’s usually controlled demeanor devolved into a snorting catastrophe.

The crowd laughed.

Clare strode away from the gathering crowd as the whirling blades of the Interventionists copter approached.

A woman’s voice rang shrill above the noise. “Flip him on his back, boys, then they can haul him off easier!”

Score one for the home team! Clare grinned and shook her head at the irony of it all. She hated mindless blood sports, but she couldn’t help cheering every time a human got the better of an alien.

She sailed across the street, scrolling through her datapad.

Her smile faded. Mrs. Lane Hoggsworth had been found dead in her home late last night, Day 73, Year 53 Newearth reckoning. Clare’s brows furrowed in irritation. If the woman had been more important, Human Services would have pulled in a high-profile investigator, but as it stood, she was only important to her family, and they didn’t have much money or influence. After all, the deplorably dark saying, “It’s only a human,” held sway in a world where humans were the minority and considered, by some, to rate only slightly above their wildlife counterparts—like snakes and eagles.

She checked the time and her scowl deepened. If Bala showed up late for his first big assignment, there’d be trouble. She wasn’t going to blow this case, not for him and his silly-fool addiction to hearth and home. Not that she minded his family-ties mindset. Everyone had a right to an obsession. She planned to build a safe house in the wilderness someday. She had even saved up for flying lessons. But with each new case, she realized there was no escaping Newearth reality. Not even on an island.

Clare rounded the corner and ducked into The Breakfast Nook, nearly colliding with Bala’s skinny frame. “You’re late!”

“Am not!” Bala held up his datapad and smirked. “Thirty seconds to go.” He tapped his finger on his wrist screen, his copper-colored face breaking into a wide smile. “Good thing I have a timer, or I might’ve been. You should have seen Kendra jump when the alarm went off. I set it so loud the whole street could hear it.”

Clare shook her head and waved him through the door. “It amazes me that you manage to keep your head attached. Some folks don’t take kindly to loud noises. How about if—”

A seven-foot Ingot hostess with thick bio-armor and leathery skin ushered them to a booth in the back. “—A Bhuac took offense? You know how irritable they get with high-pitched sounds. One could have slipped over and picked off half of your family.”

Bala grimaced. “You’re always exaggerating! It so happens that we do have a shape-shifter down the way, but we’ve been on very good terms ever since I saved one of their pod-thingys from submersion. How it got in the gutter—don’t even ask— but I was in the right place at the right time and, you know, as secretive as they can be, they really do have a deep capacity for gratitude.”

“Oh, please!” Clare looked up at the impatient hostess. “Coffee, strong as you can make it while still keeping it liquid, a honey-grain bar, large energizer salad, and fruit of the day.”

The hostess turned her full black-eyed glare upon Bala who was perusing the menu as if he hadn’t memorized it long ago. “Coffee, cream, toast and…some bacon and eggs.”

The hostess lunged. She gripped Bala’s heavy plaid shirt and hauled his whole body into the air, leaving Clare stunned into gasping silence.

With arms flailing helplessly, Bala had just enough air to beg. “Just a joke! Really. Kidding. I didn’t mean anything… seriously. Let me down. Please?”

The hostess dropped him and shook her datapad in his face. Her techno-organic armor glistened a reddish-purple as her breathing helm hissed. “You want to order, then order. No sick jokes. Eggs and bacon! What next? You think it’s funny to talk like that, but there are some who wouldn’t mind eating you!”

Bala rubbed his neck and sniffed in a long cleansing breath. “You’re right, it was stupid of me. Really… quite insensitive. I’d just been reading some Oldearth novels, you know. Fiction? Stories? Anyway, they made everything sound so delicious— Sorry! I didn’t mean that. I just—”

Clare’s glare could have melted a polar cap. “Would you order before you get us both killed?”

“Coffee, chocolate pudding, and a raisin-nut bar, extra-large.”

The hostess pounded away, huffing.

“You are such an idiot sometimes, you know that? What was I thinking when I hired you?”

Bala’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Oh, you were thanking God above that I’m going to save you from the hideous fate of trying to solve all of humanity’s problems single-handedly. It is funny how we don’t recognize our good fortune when it’s staring right at us.” Bala’s grin practically engulfed his face.

Slapping her hand on the table, Clare leaned in and hissed, “Good fortune? It was pity, pure and simple. I couldn’t let that lovely wife of yours and your brood of—how many is it now— six? Six helpless humanoids suffer from the sad fate of having you as the head of provisions.”

Bala turned his less-than-symmetrical face aside to display his profile. “At least I’m as handsome as a Greek god, you’ve gotta give me that.”

The hostess returned and slammed down two mugs of steaming coffee, slopping a little on Bala’s hand.

Bala slipped his hand into his lap with a stifled “Ooo-ahh,” looking every which way but at the hostess.

Clare nodded her appreciation and waited till the hostess stomped off.

“As I was saying, we have a job to do. Mrs. Hoggsworth didn’t blow a hole through herself. Her husband is nearly suicidal and her son wants revenge. Neither of them has much money, but the son has connections to the Michigan territories. I’ve got my eye on a little spot over there. If we can work out a deal, I might be able to find a place for my island getaway, and you might get a little stretch in the woodlands on the northern coast. It’d be away from the usual madness, and you could raise your clan in relative safety.” Clare clapped her hand on her forehead. “So long as you don’t go around ordering bacon and eggs.”

Bala leaned in, returning her earlier hiss. “Listen, there are those of us who believe that meat and eggs are not off the menu. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of animal flesh, so long as it isn’t from one of the sentient beings.”

“Tell that to one of the Race Relation Councilors, and you’ll find yourself in treatment, boy-o.”

The hostess slipped two metal plates with their breakfast assortment in front of them and twitched as another customer snapped for her attention.

Bala and Clare stared at the plates, switched them, and began to eat.

Bala talked around chews. “So where do we begin?”

“At the house. The Hoggsworths live on Memory Lane near the shore, right across from the University. I went by there earlier to make some initial inquiries. As I said, Mr. Hoggsworth is near despair while his son, Tim, is ready to kill someone. I promised we’d be back, so I want to swing by first and talk to the neighbors, review the facts, and see I missed any other biosamples.” Dusting away the crumbs from her grain bar, Clare tucked into her salad.

“And me?”

“Oh, this is good!” Clare took a long sip of her coffee. “You’re going to take the samples back to the lab, run them, and do a background check on everyone near the scene. Ordinary stuff. I’m convinced the history professor, Baltimore, is guilty. He got into an exchange with Mrs. Hoggsworth over a history paper he assigned Junior. I guess he’s into revisionist history, rewriting the past age, and making things look nice for the present.”

Clare’s gaze scrolled down her datapad. “Mrs. Hoggsworth apparently took exception. Not surprising, though she was a fool to make it so obvious. Everyone knows that the professors are protected.” She glanced at Bala. “I doubt Old Baltimore killed her himself. He’s human with a bad back and skinny arms. Hardly the type to face an enraged mother one-on-one. ” She wiped her lips and pushed her plate aside. “My guess is, he hired a thug, probably one of those—”

The hostess slammed down a metallic fist and stared at Clare. “You paying?”

Clare’s eyebrows rose. “I always do.”

“The cashier’s broken. You’ll have to pay me directly.”

Clare tilted her head sideways and scanned the room. It was nearly empty. Stupid! You’re supposed to be better trained than this! Kicking Bala under the table, she placed both hands on the table edge and the two of them flung the light structure into the hostess’ chest.

Jumping to her feet, Clare called for the owner. “Hey, Riko! Your help wants me to pay her directly. That okay with you?”

Riko, a slim Uanyi marched forward. His soft, rubbery exoskeleton gleamed through a crisp, white shirt. His enormous eyes bulged as his crab-like mandibles twitched under his breathing mask. “I told you last time, it’d be the salvage yard if you tried it again!”

Clare dashed to the cashier in attendance, a pretty, human-looking Bhuac. In a matter of seconds, Clare paid her bill and tugged at Bala’s sleeve. “You don’t want to see this. Really.”

Bala stared, fascinated. “You think he’ll really—?”

“That’s not our concern. We’re humans, remember?”

“Yeah, but where I grew up, we all got along. We helped out when—”

“You were living off-planet in some airy-fairy religious fantasyland. This is Newearth, boy-o, this is the real world, and here, you don’t get involved with other species. Let’s go.”

Bala turned as a loud hiss issued from the backroom, where Riko had ushered the hostess moments before.

Clare stepped on the threshold when a hand stopped her.

“Excuse me. But are you Detective Smith?”

Clare appraised the thirty-something man in front of her. He was tall, with dark curly hair, chocolate brown eyes, a jutting chin, a massive chest, and large hands. He certainly wouldn’t be up for any “ideal specimen” awards, but then again, you never knew. There was that hideous guy from Old-Chicago. Women fell for him right and left. Funny that. Not that I’m looking— Clare shook herself.

“What can I do for you?”

“Can we talk somewhere…privately?”

Clare checked her datapad and flashed a glance at Bala. “We have an appointment in a few minutes, but if you want, I can meet you later.”

“Where?”

“How about the Coliseum? The government types will be leaving about dusk.”

“That’ll work. Could I buy you dinner?”

“I never eat with prospective clients. But I’ll take some coffee—decaf or I’ll never sleep.”

“Fine.”

Clare turned away but then stopped herself. “Is it a murder case?”

“No, a missing person.”

“Okay. You got a name? Maybe I can look something up when I have a free moment.”

“You can’t. He’s not missing. Yet.”

~~~

As Derik stood in front of the Oldearth-styled restaurant known as the Coliseum, the city slowed to an evening pace. Derik ran his fingers up and down his arms. The bulges were definitely larger. He wiped sweat from his brow and wondered again about the sea scent that followed him everywhere.

The rosy sunset settled behind the silhouetted trees in the park, sweeping his anxieties aside. He marveled at the simple beauty that arrived with glorious regularity each day. If only—

“Hi! Have you been waiting long?”

Derik nearly jumped out of his skin, though he realized with a tinge of fear that his skin no longer felt like his own. “Uh, no. I’ve— I’ve just been admiring—the sunset.” He waited for the smirk…the bewildered stare.

Clare turned and joined him, facing west. A sudden breeze caught her hair, sending wisps cascading against her pink cheeks.

Derik marveled. How could such stern, uncompromising lips be transformed into such soft, inviting— “Uh? What?”

Clare frowned. “I said, I wonder why God keeps painting such beautiful pictures for such an unappreciative audience.”

Derik swallowed. Had she read his mind? “I was just thinking the same thing. Amazing.”

“Not really. After all, it’s true.” Her gaze rolled over him, apparently making a professional appraisal.

Derik cringed at what those eyes would tell her brain. Yeah, he was a big guy, “relative to an elephant” his foster mother used to say. He felt more related to a mouse.

“Well, for starters, I’d like a name. I can’t just say, hey you, all the time.”

“Yes, of course. My name is Derik, Derik Erland. I’m from the Wisconsin Territories. You ever been there?”

“Yeah, I did some training there. I love the coastal area. So, you want some coffee?”

Derik nodded and led the way up a long flight of stone steps toward the Coliseum’s grand structure with its nine-foot metal doors. Without breaking a sweat, he pulled the door open and stepped aside with a curt bow.

After a moment’s hesitation, Clare strode into the foyer.

A host in his mid-twenties, clean-shaven and with dark hair and darker eyes, wearing a toga-style outfit, ushered up to them. “At your service.”

Clare waved a lazy index finger. “Just coffee, and maybe some of those nut muffins.”

The host bowed and gestured toward a side room. Low tables with enormous pillows were arranged sporadically around the perimeter, while round, dark wood tables polished to a high gloss stood in each corner. A low balcony overlooked a huge sports arena where teams vied for a bloody first-place, day and night.

Derik dashed ahead and nearly knocked Clare down in his effort to pull a chair out for her.

Clare’s eyebrows rose.

Derik heaved a sigh and offered a weak grin. “Sorry. Don’t know my own strength. Still a growing boy, Mom used to say.”

“You? You don’t look like any boys I know. How old are you?”

Derik cleared his throat, pulling on his shirt collar. “Thirty-five.”

Clare sat, her wide-eyed stare appraising his stature. “Your parents had—what? Germanic DNA?”

“Can’t say. I was adopted.”

Clare’s gaze flickered to the sports scene. A hockey game in full swing swirled around the ice, while a five-person fight broke out in the corner. After closing her eyes for a moment, she refastened them on Derik. “Used to?” Clare grimaced. “You said your mom used to say….”

“She’s been gone ten years now. She passed away six months after dad.”

Clare’s eyes softened. “Ouch.”

Derik shrugged away old losses and nodded with a quick smile to a small group of middle-aged men who strolled to a table on their left.

Clare leaned back, apparently relaxed. “You know this place pretty well.”

“My dad used to bring me here when we were traveling. I love Oldearth history, and he thought…well, let’s just say, he always hoped that I’d be inspired by the warrior spirit.”

With a twisted smile, Clare sniffed. “With that body, you don’t need to prove anything.”

A puck slammed into a net, followed by a shout, and ten players pummeled the goalie.

Derik grinned at the players’ antics. “If I were just up against humans, that’d be true. But around here—”

The slump-shouldered host set the platter before them. Clare took a sip, darting a glance at the game as a player was dragged off the floor, a trail of blood streaming behind. She pushed the muffin plate away. “So, you want to tell me about the missing person…who isn’t missing…yet?”

Derik picked a muffin to shreds. With an intake of breath, he steadied himself. “It’s me. I’m the missing person.”

Clare chewed her lip, brushed imaginary crumbs from her fingers daintily, and sighed. “Look, if this is some kind of joke or a really weird pick-up routine, I’m going to be seriously disappointed.”

“I’m not joking and, though you are definitely—well, it’s not that.” Derik wrung his hands in a furious twist. “I need to know who I am. I’m not who I thought I was. Or who my parents said I was. Heck, at the moment…I’m not even sure I’m human!”

As the game ended and the players lined up to shake hands, Clare shook her head. “Oookay, I’ll go along for the ride. But I need more. I feel like I just picked up in the middle—”

“James and Monica Erland adopted me as a baby. The official report said that I was a human abandoned at birth at the Wisconsin Center for Human Services. My parents raised me, even homeschooled me so that I wouldn’t have to deal with all the Exos and their prejudices. My dad studied Oldearth history—a great man.”

“Sounds good. But that hardly explains—”

“I was getting to that. My parents noticed that I grew larger and faster than most kids. They figured I came from some Nordic or Germanic strain. They did a test, but when the results came back, they only joked that my DNA broke their machine. I worried that there was more to it—I was always different.” He rubbed his arms. “A few months ago, I noticed a change—a significant change. I’m long past adolescence, but I feel like I’m just now coming into my own. I feel powerful. And my skin—”

A cleanup crew began mopping up the blood as another team assembled on the stadium floor. This time club-wielding Uanyi players lined up against humans armed with Tasers.

Clare’s wide eyes swiveled from the stadium to Derik. She frowned. “Your skin…?”

Derik pushed up his sleeve and revealed a thick arm coated in what appeared to be a rubbery shell.

Clare reached out a tentative finger and tapped it. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. You see?” Derik leaned in and whispered, huskily. “I’m not human…or at least not pure. I might be a mixed—”

Up flew Clare’s hand. “Sheesh! Keep your voice down. Don’t even say that!” Blowing air between her lips, she ignored the metallic clang announcing the start of the next game. “I see your problem. I’m just not sure how I can help. You’re not really missing. You’re clearly not dead. Perhaps you should see a doctor. This might just be some kind of odd skin condition.”

Derik shook his head like an obstinate ox. “I can’t show this to a doctor! They’d be bound to report it to the authorities.” He leaned back and slouched. “How about if I am…mixed? I’m not supposed to exist.”

Clare frowned, rubbing her eyes. Screams echoed from the side as cheerleaders from opposing teams tried to outshout each other. “I’m just not sure what to do.”

“You’re an investigator. So—investigate. I have a little money. I’ll pay you myself, and once I know the truth…”

Clare sighed heavily and clasped her hands together. “Listen. No one else knows about your little problem, right? Why not just ignore this? Keep your irregularities a secret and pretend you’re human. You’ve made it this far thinking that.”

“I can’t ignore this!” Derik hissed. “How about if I’m an Ingot or a Uanyi? Do you think I’ll be able to keep that a secret? Or worse, how about if I’m a Cresta or some off-world creature I don’t even know about?” Closing his eyes a moment, Derik clenched his hands so tightly they shook. “I’ve always wondered if—”

“Don’t! Don’t go there! By the Divide, you want to get experimented on, killed…and then experimented on some more? I’ll tell you right now; nice beings don’t do that kinda stuff. Finding out who’s behind this could be very risky.”

Derik threw up his hands in surrender. “You’re right. I should never have asked you. This is too dangerous, and I’ve no right to involve anyone else.” Derik looked away, blinking back despair. “I’m just glad my parents are gone.”

Clare rolled her eyes. “Oh, please! I feel guilty enough. Common sense tells me to run out that door.” She waged a finger at the nearest exit to make her point abundantly clear. “Still, I’ve never been one to shirk a challenge.” Clenching her jaw against a deep okay-I-give-in sigh, she straightened and pulled out her datapad. “But listen, if I don’t discover anything helpful within a month, I’m dropping your case. I might know someone else who could take it, but he’s…well, he’s kind of—” Clare reached across the table and patted Derik’s hand. “I’ll do what I can—promise.”

As Derik returned her smile, a Uanyi player clubbed a human across the back. Another human rushed in and started Tasering the Uanyi long past the three-second limit. Whistles blasted from all sides as referees struggled to separate the furious players.

Derik and Clare stared, dumbfounded.

The host returned, his depression replaced by rage. He glared at Derik’s arm and pursed his lips.

Derik straightened his sleeve and huffed back. “My account, please.”

“…despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” ~J. R. R. Tolkien

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Three

The Mingling Throng

Cerulean stared up at the lofty two-storied cabin with large gabled windows and wide surrounding porch and grinned. It was everything he had dreamed of and more. Turning his head, his gaze swept over the lofty panorama, skimming across the waters of the great lake. Huge, white geese flew high above the bubbling crests that rolled up on the shore on this fine, summer evening.

He was exhausted, but he was getting used to that sensation. Ever since he won his last great tussle with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, he had promised himself a retreat and a rest to build up his depleted reserves. He had been fighting Luxonians, humans—and pretty much everyone else—for far too long.

Even as his shoulders relaxed, shuffled footsteps forced him to turn his gaze from the blue-green water, across the pine-strewn forests, and back to the front of his cabin. There, on the dirt trail, a small assembly of men and women came to a huddled stop. His whole body stiffened and he frowned. Who the—?

The eldest figure spoke first. “Excuse us, sir. We hate to bother you, but are you Cerulean, the Luxonian leader of the Inter-Alien—?”

Cerulean sighed, his shoulders drooping. Oh, God. He peered into their tanned faces, appraised their homespun clothing and work-roughened hands, and repented his impatience. Give me strength. “I’m not the leader of anything anymore. I’ve retired.”

A tall, extremely thin representative of the group stepped forward. He strangled a straw hat in his hands and shuffled his feet. “But you are that Luxonian?”

Cerulean shrugged. “I helped patch together the Inter-Alien Alliance on Newearth, yes.” His gaze roved over the group as a baby, hidden from sight, squalled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

The tall man took another hesitant step forward, his brown-eyed gaze looking up the slope and into Cerulean’s piercing eyes. “My name is Able, and you see, we’re settlers here, neighbors, kind of. We call ourselves the Amens. Separatists. We want to return to the ways of our ancestors and live in union with God’s created world.”

A wavering grin played on Cerulean’s lips. “The Bhuac would love you.”

Able’s face brightened as a smile broke the straight line of his mouth. “Yes, sir, we know of them, and they do support our dream, but they have their own struggles. They’ve been persecuted too.”

“Someone’s persecuting you?” Cerulean pursed his lips. “Listen, this is no way to get acquainted. Please, step up here. The porch is large enough, and I have a few chairs. I’ve even got some food inside if you like.”

The two women offered sidelong glances and grinned as the elder one shifted her baby from under a blanket onto her hip. The other men started forward. Able put up his hand. “We wouldn’t think of disturbing you, but it would be a kindness to speak in the shade. The sun is hot, though the breeze you have up here is a real blessing.”

Cerulean opened his hands in a welcoming gesture, and the group filed past and climbed the four wooden steps. In quick jerking motions, he dragged chairs forward. “I just moved in, and I haven’t gotten everything set up yet.”

Able waved his hand anxiously. “Please, we only want a few moments of your time to explain our mission and why we need your help—if you don’t mind.”

Cerulean leaned against a post, suppressed a sigh, and nodded.

The three men moved into the background, while the two women settled into the available chairs. The mother rocked her baby with a relieved smile.

Able continued to wring his hat as he focused his attention on Cerulean. “You see, we were granted immigration status four years back, but it took time to organize our people and buy the right plot of land. We don’t want to trouble anybody, and we have no prejudice against any race, but we do have rules we must abide by. We choose to live simply and in union with nature. That’s why we moved into this wilderness over a year ago. At first, everything went along as planned. We built homes for our members and worked the land so that we could plant, and we even made a few contacts with businesses in Waukee.”

Cerulean saluted Able with an appreciative nod. “Sounds like you’re a marvel of planning and industry.”

Able accepted the compliment with a shy smile before his face sobered. “Well, we aren’t afraid of hard work, but we are afraid of death threats.”

“Death threats?”

“About six months ago, a mob of Uanyi showed up and told us to move on, that we’re not welcome in this district. I told them that we had the authorization of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee to buy land here and that we have full human rights to form our own society as we see fit. I even showed them our data chip authorizing—”

“They ignored it, didn’t they? Uanyi don’t much care for humans. They’ll continue trying to intimidate you if they think they can get away with it.”

“They did a whole lot more than intimidate. They beat three of our men senseless and threatened to come back and kill our women and children if we didn’t leave.”

Cerulean’s frown deepened as he pushed off from the post. “Did you inform the Human Rights Bureau? Get any Interventionists out here?”

Able sighed. “A couple of Interventionists flew in and took down our complaint. But they told us that since we didn’t have any hard evidence, it’s going to be difficult to follow up. I went all the way to Vandi and issued a formal complaint, but the Human Rights detective I met said that threats against humans were too numerous to deal with. Humans are the minority and what with the Cresta, Uanyi, Ingot, and Luxonians—pardon me, sir, but not all Luxonians are like you—we find that we have very few rights and even fewer friends. At least not anyone who can help to defend us against a band of unruly Uanyi.”

Cerulean sat on the top step and rubbed his hands over his face. He let his gaze absorb the vast beauty before him and took a deep breath. Craning his neck, he looked back at the assembly.

Able blinked and glanced away. “You can’t help us?”

Cerulean rose and strode to the woman and the now sleeping infant. He smiled at the bright pink face nestled against his mother’s enfolding body. With a gentle finger, he caressed the tousled, straw-colored hair and peered into the mother’s eyes. “I’ll do everything I can. I have friends. Just give me a few days to track down these Uanyi idiots, and I might be able to convince them that it’ll be in their best interests to leave you alone.”

Relieved smiles broke across every face. The mother’s eyes filled with tears as she reached out and gripped Cerulean’s hand, her voice a shy whisper. “Thank you.”

Cerulean nodded. “Well, I don’t know about you, but solving problems makes me hungry. How about you come in and I’ll scratch up…something?”

A burst of laughter followed this as the two women shuffled to their feet. Able gripped Cerulean’s shoulder. “On the contrary, you’ll be our guest tonight, if you’ll do us the honor. My wife is one of the best cooks on the planet, and her sister can brew the finest tea this side of the moon.”

Cerulean grinned at Able’s soft, delighted eyes. “I can hardly wait to meet them.”

Perching his rumpled hat jauntily on his head, Able grinned back. “You already have.” The small troop shuffled down the steps with Able guiding the woman and baby. He looked back at Cerulean as he stopped on the trail, the rest of the group traipsing down the incline. “I’ll come back at sunset and lead you over. We’ll gather everyone to celebrate.”

Cerulean sighed. “I hope you aren’t counting on me too much. I’ll do the best I can, but you know, trouble is part of life here on Newearth.”

Able bobbed his head in agreement and turned away with a wave. “True, true, but we’ve got the best reason in the universe to be glad. It isn’t every day that you meet a new friend.”

Cerulean’s gaze followed the small group as they traipsed away.

An odd sensation made him look down. His legs were shaking. In fact, his whole body shook. Collapsing on the bottom step, he held his head in his hands and groaned.

~~~

Stopping just outside the Vandi Transport Center, Justine stared. Her eyes dilated for maximum reception. Humans wearing every assortment of casual and formal attire, insect-like Uanyi with their soft, rubbery exoskeletons, Ingots in their bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms, Crestas with their tentacles and mechanical exoskeletons, and Bhuacs, appearing like fairies from an Oldearth storybook, all bustled about, intermingling on an ordinary city street.

So this is Newearth? Justine smiled to herself. At least I am free of Taug for a few hours. Pity the universe hasn’t improved its business class accommodations. Still, I won’t complain. I am alive, after all.

Moving forward, Justine fell into step with the scurrying mix of life forms. Her heightened sense of hearing and sight allowed her to absorb vast and complex information with relative ease. After crisscrossing the main sections of the developing city, she recorded a perfect map of each of the important structures: hospitals, schools, shops, assorted businesses, and government buildings. Each alien race had an embassy suited to its specific needs.

The Crestar structure enclosed a two-hundred-meter pool filled with imported Crestonian water and loaded with the best livestock that Crestar officials could afford.

The Uanyi embassy was built half-underground with a smooth, rounded surface, which appeared much like an enormous anthill, meeting the needs of the insect-like race perfectly but sending their human neighbors into fits of disgust.

The Ingots, being fond of straight lines and geometric shapes, devised their structure so that it looked very much like a computer chip, which created a startling contrast to the rest of the Vandi environment.

The Bhuacs’ obsessive devotion to nature compelled them to build their embassy on the outskirts of the city, imitating the trees and hills so perfectly that many citizens simply passed by, never realizing that the structure was anything more than the natural environment.

At Vandi Central Park, Justine stopped at the sound of laughter. A small group of children swung on a swing set that allowed them to fly high into the air, jump, and fall into a safety net. An older boy encouraged a younger child to let go and free fall.

“It’s safe. You saw me do it, Joe. Go on. Let go! You’ll love it.”

Two younger girls watched in mesmerized fascination as Joe flew higher and higher, his grip tightening on the swing.

Justine’s gaze swept the assembly. A mirrored smile crept across her features at the children’s enthusiasm. It did look like fun.

Suddenly, Justine’s eye caught the glint of a ragged piece of metal. She focused her gaze on the top bolt that held the structure together, attaching the swing structure to the welcoming net. Snap!

Pounding across the short grass, Justine reached out for the child just as he finally gained the courage to let go. As he flew up, Justine dived. With her arms outstretched, she slid across the gravel towards the small falling body. A snapping crack rent the air as the structure broke completely. Shrieks filled the park, and Justine felt the heavy thud as the child landed in her arms. She leaned into the fall and allowed its momentum to skid her further along the gravel. She’d have to make repairs before she met with Taug this evening.

When the last pebble skidded to a halt, Justine gazed into the small crumpled face, the eyes squeezed shut, lips wobbling. She folded her arms protectively around the child. His piercing blue eyes opened wide, startled, amazed. His expression of gratitude touched the depth of her being.

A pudgy, tanned hand pressed on her shoulder.

Justine, forced to unlock her gaze, glanced back, following the trail of the arm, the shoulder, and then another face, wide-eyed and blanched with fear. She sucked in a breath and offered a small grin. Straightening, she shifted the boy from her arms onto his own shaky feet.

His hand gripped hers tightly, squeezing her thumb.

With a comforting pat, she rose to her knees and looked him in the eyes again. “You’re okay. That was a close call. Lucky I saw the hinge break.”

The older boy pressed closer, putting his arm around little Joe. He peered deep into Justine’s eyes, shaking his head. “You moved so fast. It was—I don’t know. I never saw anything like it. He could’ve broken his neck if you hadn’t caught him.”

Justine quickly brushed her pant legs, covering the tears and the lack of blood. She straightened to her full height and tilted her head as she appraised the elder boy. “You would have done the same, if you had seen it in time.”

The elder boy shook his head again. The girls shuffled closer, their gazes shifting between Joe and Justine. The smaller girl touched Joe’s arm, stroking him like a cat, while the other pointed to Justine’s legs.

“That must hurt. You want to go to a doctor and get it looked at? My mom’ll pay. You saved Joe.”

Justine’s face twitched in the glimmering, late afternoon sunlight. The sounds of the bustling city carried on as usual. “I’m fine. A little scrape doesn’t bother me.” She stepped away from the small group and glanced back. “Glad to help.”

She turned and, sweeping her long legs across the street, entered the mingling throng.

~~~

“There’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple…” ~Scott Adams

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Two

For One Purpose

Slowly, deliberately, a light scalpel moved over cold flesh. “Tell me, do you fear death?” Mitholie, a brilliant Cresta renowned throughout the interplanetary scientific community, fixed his companion with a hard gaze as they stood in the bright-lit Crestar laboratory.

Taug, an up-and-coming apprentice, let a tentacle drift through the warm salt water of his bio-suit. His large, golden, watery eyes gazed coolly at the specimen lying suspended in the examination tube. “No. Why should I fear a void?” His eyes slowly rose to meet the elder’s scrutiny.

“Well—” Sensitive tentacles curled about the delicate equipment as Mitholie’s green eyes returned to the subject of their examination. “—your sociological profile says you…dislike death.” The light scalpel cut deeper, revealing bone. Mitholie’s mouth orifice lit up in a pleased smile.

Taug moved his bio-suit slightly nearer, bending over the examination tube. His eyes, lit by the dim, icy-blue lighting, flickered over the specimen. “I don’t fear death. I see it as a waste.”

“A waste?”

“Yes. I calculate waste on how hard it is to retrieve lost data.” Taug sucked in water letting it drift slowly over his gills. “A brain sack once destroyed is gone, forever beyond our reach.”

Mitholie scanned each of the specimen’s organs carefully, individually. “But what if I no longer need that mind?”

“It’s hard to tell when and how something might be useful, or even worse, necessary.”

“You have an…intriguing mind.” Mitholie turned a lump of flesh in his tentacles.

Taug watched intently. “Beyond that, there is a practical reality. I’m neither a trained soldier nor an assassin.” He gestured with waving tentacles, “Like you, science is my passion.”

“Your father’s pet project has been identified—alive.” Mitholie’s eyes remained fixed on his work, ignoring Taug.

Taug slowly exhaled water. “I would say that was impossible, but I know the High Tribunal must be certain or else you wouldn’t have told me.” His mouth orifice remained in a fixed smile. “Is this a favor? Am I being offered a chance to commit suicide before the messy business of torture, trial, and execution?”

Mitholie spasmed, his long body wiggling with glee, “No such dramatics, no.” His tentacles released the delicate equipment; he looked Taug in the eye. “The High Tribunal simply wishes you to…purge your father’s unfortunate experiment. That done, I’m sure this messy business can be consigned to the dark waters.”

Taug’s tentacles curled thoughtfully. “Forgotten?”

“And forgiven.”

“I’ll need its location.”

With a flick of a tentacle to his bio-suit, Mitholie effected a transaction. “I’m transferring the data now. By the way, hiring another Cresta to kill it is…unadvised. The High Tribunal wishes the waves of the ‘humons’ to be kept tranquil, at least for now. Besides, you have contacts? Yes?”

Taug’s eyes moved swiftly, scanning the long streams of data crossing before his eyes. “Yes….”

Mitholie laid down his knife and stepped back. “Very good. I’ll go with you to the harbor dock.”

Taug stepped aside. “Thank you.”

Together they moved down the sterile, rounded, white hallway, deep in secretive conversation. Plugging their bio-suits into the wall jacks, they shed them, and came out on the other side of the wall free, gliding through the dark water.

The human specimen floated in the examination tube, alone.

~~~

Floating in deep space, Bothmal Penal Internment was left deliberately unmarked on any space charts. Its layout was confusing and disorienting; carved from an asteroid, it stood as a grim reminder of what could happen to one if you angered enough powerful beings. Many sentient races held a similar vision of hell, and those imprisoned at Bothmal all agreed that if it wasn’t hell—it was right next door.

Zenith stood beside the docking bay port, scanning a list of names being streamed to him. Long ago, he had been fully human, but the allure of immortality had led him to enhance most of his body with synthetic replacements, including his eyes. He would celebrate his four-hundredth birthday this year, if he continued the practice. A heavy trans-platinum chest guard protected his vital organs. Over this, he wore a synth-weave robe with a hefty handgun resting on his hip.

As the Chief Warden of Bothmal, Zenith knew the tangled structure like the back of his bio-metal hand and had several backup maps downloaded to his brain, just in case.

An interstellar ship, several times larger than the skyscrapers of Oldearth, docked nearby with its boarding tube neatly extended. Only one passenger exited the ship.

Taug moved slowly down the platform, flexing his tentacles in his new bio-suit. Biomechanical three-toed feet moved him smoothly over the floor, keeping his center of gravity low.

“Ah…Taug.” Zenith deftly pronounced the name that popped up in his holo-vision. “Pleased to meet you.” He inclined his head, motioning with his arm. “This way, if you please.”

Taug mimicked the bow and moved silently after his host.

“I hope you’ll forgive us for giving you this guided tour rather than allowing you to down-stream your own maps.” Zenith turned slightly. “Security, you know.”

Taug spoke, his voice synthesized. “I do.”

“You’re here on business?”

Taug’s brow furrowed.

Zenith’s grin turned malicious, “You’re not here to visit a relative…?” 

“Certainly not! As you say, it’s business. I simply need to see if someone is still…available.”

The burly, six-foot human guard was not happy to see the large, soft-bodied Cresta in a gleaming black mechanical exoskeleton lumber toward him. His squint-eyed frown kept pleasantries to a minimum.

Taug strode forward. His tentacles arched stiffly at his side as he assumed the air of a harassed official, which was not off the mark. The journey to Bothmal had been long and exhausting. He hated the tough, unrelenting metallic form that allowed him to move and breathe on land, but he had little choice. Terrestrials dominated the universe. He felt out of sorts and hungry, but this part of his plan could not be delayed.

“I have an appointment.” Taug pinched a computer chip with his tentacle and dropped it on to the guard’s palm.

The guard inserted it into his datapad. Scowling, he jerked his head toward the back room. “Oh, it’s you. I was wondering who in darkness would want it. After all these years, it’s probably not any good. I’d start fresh if I were you.”

Taug shook his head, the water in his breathing helm swishing with each motion. Water dripped down the side of his face. “Good thing you’re not me.”

The guard sneered his reply.

The two shuffled through the doorway into a back room where Justine lay immobile on a steel table, the same table where she had been turned off. Taug stared at the figure and appraised its strength, noting its perfect symmetry and conjecturing on its intelligence. He turned to the guard.

The guard hesitated. “Like I said, it’s probably no good, but if you want to waste your time—”

The guard punched some numbers into his datapad and swiped it with two fingers.

The guard jumped back but threw out his hand protectively in front of Taug. “You never can tell how these things’ll react. She could go bloody ballistic, if you know what I mean.”

“Now, please.” Taug cleared his throat.

Justine jerked.

Taug stood motionless. His eyes narrowed as he studied Justine’s response.

She opened her eyes, turned her head, and stared first at Taug and then at the guard.

Taug nodded. “She is awake. Everything looks fine. You may leave us.”

The guard shook his head. “You sure? She could sit up and throttle you as soon as I walk out the door.”

“Will you throttle me, Justine?”

Justine sat up, her gaze fixed on Taug. “Should I?”

The guard stifled a laugh.

Taug ignored the guard and returned Justine’s intense stare.

“No.”

“Then I won’t.”

Taug’s gaze shifted back to the guard. “Thank you. You may leave.”

With a shrug, the guard shuffled to toward the doorway. “Okay, it’s your neck. If I hear a scream…or something…I’ll—”

Justine flicked her gaze to the guard. “You wouldn’t have time.”

The guard stalked out the door.

Taug stepped back, allowing Justine room to shift herself off the bed.

She stood and appeared to be appraising her internal workings.

“Are you all right?”

“It appears so.”

Taug meandered toward a conference table and a pair of comfortable chairs. “Please, let’s sit. You can hardly imagine what I’ve been through to get here. Interminable bureaucrats…but, never mind.” Taug lowered his stiff body onto a chair and sighed. He sniffed into the breathing helm and allowed the briny liquid to play over his face.

Justine strode over and stood by him. “I’d rather pace if you don’t mind. I’ve been lying around for…how long?”

“Approximately seventy years, give or take, depending on whose calendar you use these days. Since we’ll be settling on Newearth, you might as well get used to their systems of measurement.”

“Why? I mean, why have you…?”

“Turned you back on?”

“I would have said awakened.”

“Yes, I suspected as much. You seem to consider yourself…human. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

Justine did not break her stride. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“I awakened you because I need you.”

Justine paced across the cylindrical room.

Taug’s eyes followed her. “What do you know about Crestar?”

Justine stopped and peered inward. She refocused her gaze on Taug. “Apparently, my databank remains intact. No memory wipe of any kind?”

Taug shrugged. “A very persuasive advocate advised against it. A Luxonian, I believe.”

With a stiff nod, Justine clasped her hands behind her back and resumed a professional mode. “Crestar, home of over twenty-seven billion life forms. A water planet ruled by a coalition of seven leading scientists called the Ingal. Notorious for unprecedented experimentation on other beings—”

Two tentacles admonished Justine into silence. “Stop. You’ve been brainwashed by those on the Inter-Alien Alliance—”

Justine leaned forward, her eyes flashing. “No!” She glared down at Taug. “I am incapable of being brainwashed. Especially not by the very beings that nearly destroyed me.”

Taug nodded. “Good to know. Please….” He nodded toward the chair. “Sit.”

Justine perched on the edge of the available chair, her back straight and uncompromising.

Taug sighed. “You must understand my position. I am a Cresta caught between worlds. I believe in my culture, but at the same time, I fear we are heading to our doom.”

Justine pursed her lips. She folded her hands in her lap, her gaze fixed on Taug.

“I have a plan to assist my race, but I need your help to see it through. During your long sleep, a new force has arisen in the universe. It is called by the remarkably unimaginative name ‘Newearth.’ Do you happen to know anything about Oldearth?”

Justine’s gaze hardened. “I am partly composed of human DNA.”

“That was not my question.”

“I know everything about their history and downfall up until I was shut down.”

Taug nodded and struggled out of his chair. “That would be year twenty-three of what the human remnant calls their ‘Hidden Years.’” He padded to a wall screen and pushed a button. A light flared and the screen illuminated the starry universe.

“They stayed on Lux for forty years, resettled Newearth, and lived in relative obscurity until our leadership recognized an opportunity.” Taug tapped a keypad and the image zoomed through space until it focused on Newearth spinning in all its blue-green glory. “We invaded successfully until the Luxonians took the humans’ part and negotiated a peace treaty called the Inter-Alien Alliance.” He tapped again and the image refocused on a human city. Low lying buildings dotted the landscape, and humans bustled about in self-made importance.

Justine stared at the screen in unblinking fascination.

Taug looked from Justine to the image. “I’ve been ordered to serve in a city called Vandi and accomplish a, shall we say, delicate task. It is hoped that I will learn ways to secure a stronger position for my government in the alliance.”

Justine’s gaze slid to Taug’s face. Her lips stiffened. “I am not for hire.”

Taug shrugged. He flicked off the image, breaking the trance. “I didn’t say you were. I simply have plans for myself…and Newearth.”

“What plans?”

“They can’t be shared at this early stage. I just need someone with your abilities at my disposal.”

“Why?”

“I may be forced to kill someone, a mixed-breed accident, but I’m not particularly suited to committing acts of murder. Especially since no one can discover an association between me and the—”

“Object?”

“Yes, I guess you could say that. Though he does have a name.” Taug folded his tentacles together in a meditative motion. “You see, he does not appear to be a threat at the moment, but he could become one. I need to consider the situation carefully. In the meantime, I must be ready to act—if necessary.”

“What’s its name?”

“He is not an it, though I suppose… Still, I object. His name is Derik Erland, and you are to treat him with respect. He is part human, part Cresta.”

“So, I’m an assassin—again?”

“If need be.”

Justine tapped her thigh as she circled the room. “Why not make it easy on yourself? Give me a description and its location, and I’ll take care of it. After all, you just gave me back my life. I ought to do a little…something.”

Taug chuckled. “You’ll have me convinced that you are sentient before long. No, I can’t simply kill Derik. After all, he may be worth more alive. My father, Taurgon, created him. He believed, quite naively, that once races begin interbreeding, then divisions melt away. I’m not such a fool.”

“So? What’s the mixed-breed worth to you?”

“He might be the answer to every Cresta’s deepest aspiration—immortality and nearly infinite power. Once we are able to successfully graft our intellect onto other beings, we can simply regenerate ourselves as often as need be.”

“There are creatures that do something similar. I believe they are called parasites.”

“Ah, but there would be a difference. We would not simply live off our host; we would become more…a greater being in our own right. We might even rival the creator in time.”

“Who?”

Taug raised a tentacle. “I’ve already said too much.” He rose stiffly to his feet. “I have awakened you for one purpose: to be of service to me. At some point, the High Council might have decided that they needed your bed, and then where would you be? Recycled perhaps? That would be a shame. You have a lot of history tucked into that synthetic brain of yours. You might become much more than an assassin. Again, I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, come with me.”

Taug led the way toward the door where the guard snorted with irritation.

Justine took one final glance at the abandoned, steel bed and marched after Taug. “Where are we going?”

“Newearth. It’s my home for now. You may call it what you wish.”

~~~

“Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” ~Lao Tzu

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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